Although the notion of compensating freed slaves has been around since at least the Civil War, providing reparations for their descendants has never really gained much traction in the United States, as I learned while researching my book “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed.”
Is anything different now?
Reparations are rare
Historically, the term “reparations” dealt primarily with the indemnification of states ravaged by war, such as those required of the Germans by the Versailles Treaty after World War I.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, the term began to acquire a broader meaning, extending to compensation for those injured by the actions of a state.
Still, such compensation has happened only rarely.
Germany paid Holocaust survivors US$927 million – or $8.84 billion today – in compensation as part of the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, most of it going to the newly created state of Israel to defray the costs of resettlement.
Later, the U.S. offered “redress” to some 82,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” during World War II. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act granted a presidential apology and $20,000 to each living person who had been detained based on the recommendations of a commission created by Congress in 1980 to examine the causes of the “internment.”
But this payback was intended to be very limited. During the debate, then-Sen. Ernest Hollings worried, “Where do we draw the line against reparations to the countless other groups of Americans who have suffered because of actions of the U.S. government?”
And the law explicitly says compensation would only be provided to victims still alive in order to preclude reparations claims by the descendants of black slaves and others.
‘40 acres and a mule’
Efforts to avoid establishing a precedent for reparations arose in part because former slaves and their descendants have long sought some sort of compensation for their suffering under slavery and segregation. These efforts have achieved little.
Yet after taking office in 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded efforts to distribute land to those who were freed. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois thus observed that “the vision of ‘forty acres and a mule’ … was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”
‘Freedom is not enough’
A century after the Civil War, however, President Lyndon Johnson hinted at the need for reparations when he pushed through civil rights legislation intended to make blacks full citizens.
During a speech at Howard University in 1965, he declared: “Freedom is not enough. … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.”
Although Johnson didn’t call explicitly for reparations, he urged something more than just equal rights for blacks – something that would rectify the economic disadvantage blacks faced. The speech has often been seen as a harbinger of affirmative action.
Two years later, in the aftermath of urban riots in Newark, Detroit and elsewhere, Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes and recommend remedies. The commission found that “white racism” was the basic cause of the racial unrest and proposed massive investment in black communities.
Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with these critical assessments of black deprivation, but generally couched his appeals for addressing poverty in interracial terms. King did once indicate that he was coming to Washington “for a check,” but this was a rare aside.
The heart of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” his main focus toward the end of his life, was a universal basic income, not reparations.
But others would pick up the reparations baton. Black radical James Forman, for example, stormed Manhattan’s famously progressive Riverside Church in May 1969 to demand $500 million from “the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that are part and parcel of the capitalist system.” This and other demands formed the basis of the Black National Economic Conference’s “Black Manifesto.”
Calls for a commission
Little came of these efforts until decades later when then-Congressman John Conyers introduced the first bill on the issue in 1989.
It proposed a commission to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, [and] to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”
But are all these disparities rooted in slavery and segregation? This is where a congressional inquiry, which may finally be politically palatable thanks to the growing embrace of the idea among prominent Democrats, would come in.
Success, which will require legislation, will depend on building bipartisan support for the inquiry. Accordingly, I believe it’s best to avoid talk of “reparations.” After all, most Americans oppose them and always have.
First, get the commission and let it determine the causes of racial inequalities and the form that remedies should take. As poverty is not an affliction of blacks alone, the U.S. must also address the poverty that affects many others as well.
If the commission is given the opportunity to explore the causes of and remedies for racial inequality, however, perhaps Americans can finally move toward rectifying the inequities that beset blacks as a result of their country’s history of slavery, segregation and discrimination.
At a moment when there is a longstanding heated debate over how artists and pop culture figures should engage in social activism, the life and career of musical legend Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington offers a model of how to do it right.
Ellington was born on April 29, 1899 in Washington, D.C. His tight-knit black middle-class family nurtured his racial pride and shielded him from many of the difficulties of segregation in the nation’s capital. Washington was home to a sizable black middle class, despite prevalent racism. That included the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer, three months of bloody violence directed at black communities in cities from San Francisco to Chicago and Washington D.C.
Ellington’s development from a D.C. piano prodigy to the world’s elegant and sophisticated “Duke” is welldocumented. Yet a fusion of art and social activism also marked his more than 56-year career.
Ellington’s battle for social justice was personal. Films like the award-winning“Green Book” only hint at the costs of segregation for black performing artists during the 1950s and 60s.
Duke’s experiences reveal the reality.
Cotton Club to Scottsboro Boys
Ellington first rose to fame at Harlem’s “whites only” Cotton Club in the 1920s. There, the only mingling of black and white happened on the piano keyboard itself, as black performers entered through back doors and could not interact with white customers.
Ellington quietly devoted his services to the NAACP and its racial equality activities in the 1930s. Whether it was demanding that black youth have equal entrance rights to segregated dance halls or holding benefit concerts for the Scottsboro Boys, nine black adolescents falsely imprisoned for rape in 1931, Ellington used his growing fame as a prominent band leader for a greater good.
In our literary and historical research on African American entertainment, Ellington’s ability to travel and perform across national boundaries stands out.
After success in Harlem’s night spots, Ellington composed, recorded and appeared in film shorts like 1935’s “Symphony in Black” as himself. He traveled the world with his orchestra, at first performing in the U.K. in the 1930s. Later, Ellington continued to perform on behalf of the U.S. State Department as a “jazz ambassador” in the 1960s and 70s. Audiences in such places as India, Syria, Turkey, Ethiopia and Zambia were given the opportunity to hear and dance to Ellington’s compositions.
However, not even international popularity ensured that hotels would host Ellington’s all-black ensemble during a tour in the U.K. in June 1933. Members scrambled to find boarding homes in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood when mainstream hotels turned them away on account of their race.
But when Ellington traveled in the South, he still had to hire a private rail car to avoid crowded, poorly maintained “colored only” train seating, or hotels and restaurants that refused service to black Southerners.
Northern or western engagements in the 1930s and 1940s often proved no better. While there were no “white only” signs on the doors of these hotels or restaurants, establishments enforced segregation by telling black customers to enter through back doors or purchase their meals to go.
Bassist Milt Hinton recalled that Ellington and fellow band leader Count Basie often stayed at black-owned boarding houses rather than risk being thrown out or ignored.
White band managers attempted to protect the black bands they managed from these racist practices, but this still did not prevent Ellington from being denied service in a Salt Lake City hotel’s cafe in the 1940s.
Once the civil rights movement of the 1950s began to fight for racial equality through direct-action techniques like mass protests, boycotts and sit-ins, activists in the early 1950s criticized the older Ellington. His subtle activism style had focused on benefit concerts, and not “in the streets” protests.
Ellington used his creative musical talents against racist beliefs that African Americans were inferior or unintelligent.
His diverse and wide-ranging catalog of music demanded the kind of serious attention and respect that had previously only been reserved for elite, white composers of classical music.
Songs such as “Black and Tan Fantasy” completely challenged what was then called “jungle music,” a negative term used to reference music inspired by the African diaspora. As a fusion of sacred and secular black culture, both the “Black and Tan Fantasy” composition and film combined the speaking traditions of black preachers with the humor and rhythms of black life.
This work shows his ability to infuse the blues into classical music and his commitment to tell the history of black America through song.
From the spirituals developed through the trials of slavery to the fight for civil rights and the modern rhythms of big band swing music, Ellington sought to tell a story about black life that was both beautiful and complex.
Skin symbolizes identity — its color, shade, and texture influences cultural currency and, by extension, self-identity. When we know who we are, we can honor where we come from and we can dance in our own skins with pride and passion.
The Collective of Black Artists (COBA) is a Toronto-based professional dance company that works to extend this pride and passion through performance, education, and research.
I was one of four Black dancers with roots in the Caribbean who birthed COBA in 1993 to perform our physical and social realities. We worked to create a platform for Black dancers who were underrepresented in mainstream professional dance companies in Canada at the time. My fellow co-founders and dancers were: Bakari I. Lindsay (formerly Eddison B. Lindsay), Charmaine Headley and Mosa Neshama (formerly Kim McNeilly).
COBA injected new artistic blood into the dance scene in Toronto. It was the ‘90s, during the time multiculturalism was actively promoted within the city; it was the city’s response to the federal government’s attempt to promote unity within diversity by encouraging people to learn about other cultures despite differences in ethnicity, religion, social class. This government mandate helped to create an audience for COBA both in schools and in theatres.
COBA positioned itself as a diasporic family within the Canadian dance establishment. As a cultural membrane, COBA embraced over 50 dancers, drummers, singers and artists from Africa, the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe in the rigor necessary to perform appropriate representations of African and Caribbean dance traditions.
With reviews in The Globe and Mail, which said it was “a company that makes you sit up and take notice for all the right reasons,” COBA was a hit.
I am a dancer and Ph.D. candidate in education and I am interested in artistic vulnerability. As part of my research, I conducted interviews with some of the COBA founders and members on the significance and history of COBA. On a personal level, I wanted to explore the idea of COBA as a cultural lifeline to African and Caribbean dance heritage in Canada. What does it mean to have been part of this dance company?
It means remembering, reclaiming and honoring my ancestry and working with peers who took ownership of their history with boundless energy.
COBA faced challenges as an under-resourced collective.
Initial funding applications were denied because an appropriate funding category for COBA’s dance form was non-existent at that time. After years of petitioning and convincing arts councils of COBA’s artistic relevance, the arts councils eventually revised their funding categories. COBA was finally able to secure grants. Still, hiring dancers full-time, year-round was not an option. Dancers still had to earn a living outside the company.
However, working within a collective is not easy. The reality in collectives is that conflicts arise amongst members. Personalities clash. Egos bruise. Some performers anchor and stay a while. Others move on to different artistic ventures, and professional pursuits.
However, despite personnel changes and professional challenges that surfaced within the group, COBA persisted and maintained its integrity and mission. The key principles we followed were: Knowledge, co-operation, authenticity and endurance.
Artistic director, Bakari Lindsay described the COBA process as challenging: “Robust work demands a certain amount of consistent authority — with flexibility — in order to sustain a vision.”
The repertoire, created by Lindsay and Headley, allowed dancers to work with contemporary dance vocabularies, strengthening dancer’s physicality and technical ability. International guest choreographers were invited to stage work allowing the company to expose dancers to new movement aesthetics and fuelling COBA’s artistic growth.
Canada is a diverse country and breaking down social and cultural barriers between communities makes a difference in how we see each other and respond to each other’s differences.
COBA’s performances sparked students’ imagination and raised students’ social awareness.
Keeping stories alive
When the drummer’s rhythms split the air and heat of the spirit rises in the performers, dances take on a life of their own, as if driven by spiritual powers. The energy of warrior spirits in the West African dances, Doun doun ba and the healing shaman in the Kakilambe come alive and transport the dancers beyond the physical realm.
The social and historical significance of dances COBA performs demonstrates the importance of remaining flexible and adapting to new environments. Keeping stories alive through dance and drumming provides connection and memory for the things we leave behind either by choice or urgency.
While COBA’s current repertoire includes a wide variety of contemporary dance work, earlier dances were the foundation for the quality of COBA’s social and artistic exploration.
Saraca (1994), a thanksgiving ritual pays homage to the African nations who settled in the Caribbean and contributed their rites and dances to the cultural mosaic.
Non-traditional dance performance such as Portrait (1994), addresses themes of race and the human condition, underlines the problem of colourism. Griot’s Jive (2002) draws attention to gun violence which remains an acute social problem.
African perspectives for youth
The company established COBA Youth Ensemble (1994) for older/elite dancers in the children’s dance program. Together COBA and Ballet Creole created Nu-DanCe Training Program, a diverse professional dance training program grounded in an Africanist perspective.
Educating the younger generation in Africanist dance culture preserves the culture. That said, in a fast-moving dance-world social relevance is key. The invasion of hip hop and other urban dance styles commanding the global dance younger generation of dancers within the African diaspora and outside the community must know the origins of the dances they perform.
Classes in Hip Hop and Afro-beat COBA provides, ensures a new generation of dancers enjoy the dances that endorse their social relationships while promoting self-discipline and positive self-image. They will understand that the urban dances they learn and love stand on the shoulders of African dance traditions, allowing students to make connections between their past and present.
Although all of the other original founders are no longer part of COBA, Bakari Lindsay and Charmaine Headley have led COBA for the past 25 years, blazing a trail from its humble beginnings to chart new ground within Canada’s dance milieu. Touring across Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean, COBA touched, even transformed many people’s lives.
Currently COBA’s adult dance company is on hiatus. The younger generation is at the helm charting a new course for the youth. I feel privileged to have been a member of COBA. It was my diasporic family. It taught me when we dance in our own skins, we radiate our personal, spiritual and social currency.
In this Feb. 9, 2019 photo, Brig. Gen. Milford H. Beagle, Jr. commanding general of Fort Jackson, speaks to the president of the Sgt. Isaac Woodard Historical Marker Association following the dedication ceremony in Batesburg-Leesville, S.C. Beagle, Jr. who now leads the Army’s Fort Jackson in South Carolina is descended from a soldier who served there in a segregated military more than a century ago. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
Pvt. Walter Beagles arrived at Camp Jackson, South Carolina, in 1918, an African American draftee in a segregated Army that relegated black soldiers to labor battalions out of a prejudiced notion that they couldn’t fight.
More than 100 years later, his great-grandson now serves as the base’s 51st commanding general.
Brig. Gen. Milford Beagle, Jr., a combat veteran who took command last June, admits that it gets to him, knowing he’s serving where his ancestor served but under vastly different circumstances.
“It does become pretty surreal to know that the gates my great-grandfather came through are the same gates I come through,” Beagle said. “You always reflect back to you’re standing on somebody’s shoulders. Somebody put that stair in place so you can move one more rung up.”
Beagle hails from the same town where his great-grandfather came from: Enoree, South Carolina. The family dropped the “s” from the end of its name during his grandfather’s lifetime.
He says he felt compelled to enter the infantry as a young man at least partly because African Americans once were largely shunted aside — considered inferior and unsuited to combat.
“That was one thing I did reflect on. Somebody at some point in time said your particular race can’t do that,” Beagle said. “At some point our ancestors fought so we could be in those front-line units and those combat units.”
Beagle has served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, among his many postings.
His great-grandfather, who died in 1985 at the age of 94, didn’t talk much about his Army service, Beagle said. But the general enlisted the help of Fort Jackson Basic Combat Training Museum director and curator Henry Howe who found more details about Pvt. Beagles’ military service during the Great War.
“Gen. Beagle gave me a copy of his draft card. He did give me a roster of Fort Jackson, but we were able to find out a little bit more information, specifically the days he came in and the units he was with and that he deployed to … France in late 1918,” Howe said.
At Camp Jackson, Beagles would have learned fundamental drills and how to behave as a soldier with the 156th Depot Brigade, but he didn’t get much training in combat arms. He moved into the 346th Labor Battalion where his jobs included loading and unloading ships, building roads and digging ditches — labor intensive work.
“The majority of the African Americans were pushed off into the support units,” Howe said. “Oftentimes, we in the military look at the combat arms as the glory, but it’s overwhelmingly the support people that give the opportunity for victories.”
The Army that Pvt. Beagles served in was highly segregated, as was the wider society, said American studies professor Andrew Myers at University of South Carolina Upstate.
“As Jim Crow became more instituted in the civilian society, you saw the same thing kind of take over the military,” he said.
Racial tensions were high in some towns surrounding U.S. military camps, leading sometimes to violence.
In Houston, Texas, 1917 a clash between police officers and soldiers led to court martials and the execution of 19 African American soldiers.
“The execution … of the colored soldiers implicated in the Houston riot was one of the dark spots on the escutcheon of the Army, but it did not dampen the ardor of the colored men who went to the front for the Stars and Stripes,” Emmett J. Scott noted in his book, “The American Negro in the World War.” Scott was Booker T. Washington’s secretary before becoming a special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of War, serving as a liaison between black soldiers and the War Department.
In October 1918, Beagles was deployed to France. The Armistice ending the fighting was signed the following month.
Following the war, Beagles was honorably discharged in January 1919 and returned to his farm. While many cities and towns, including Columbia, South Carolina, hosted parades welcoming back their soldiers, black veterans did not typically get a hero’s welcome.
“Especially in the South as they were discharged and went back to their homes, they encountered a lot of conflict with various people,” Myers said. Some fell victim to whites who objected to seeing black men in U.S. military uniforms. In 1920, the NAACP noted that nine African American retired soldiers had been lynched in 1919.
However, the mistreatment of African American soldiers during World War I was not a story Gen. Beagle heard from his great-grandfather. Instead, he spoke of hard work, courage, strength and integrity — values that his great-grandson says are woven into his family’s history.
“I remember flexing for Great-Grandpa,” Beagle said with a smile on his face. “He was just a great person, down to earth, hard working.” You could tell that by his hands, Beagle said.
Beagle said his great-grandfather and others contributed significantly to this country, without knowing what their contributions would mean to the future of the military — now a place where people of different races work side by side with the same mission, to protect their nation.
If given one more day with his great-grandfather, Beagle said he would show him today’s diverse soldiers in formation during a graduation ceremony.
“I would turn to him and say hey, was it worth it,” Beagle said. “And I’m pretty sure I’d get a big smile back and he’d say it was absolutely worth it.”
Participants, some carrying American flags, march in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
The images of that day in 1965 were quickly seared into the American consciousness: helmeted Alabama state troopers and mounted sheriff’s possemen beating peaceful civil rights marchers in Selma, Ala., as clouds of tear gas wafted around the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
On March 7, 1965 — a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” — 600 marchers heading east out of Selma topped the graceful, arched span over the Alabama River, only to see a phalanx of state and local lawmen blocking their way on U.S. Highway 80.
The police stopped the marchers, led by Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and ordered them to disperse. Then they attacked. Lewis, one of 58 people injured, suffered a skull fracture. Amelia Boynton Robinson, then 53, was beaten unconscious and left for dead, her face doused with tear gas.
Photos of that terrible day were seen around the world. Historians credit the beatings, and the public outrage that followed, as a catalyst for the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“The marchers thought they would only be arrested,” says Gary May , a history professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy.” “They thought there would be no major trouble. That night, the film of what happened reached New York, and ABC broke it at 9 p.m.
“People across the nation were shocked at what they saw. LBJ called it a turning point in American history. He compared Bloody Sunday to Gettysburg and Lexington and Concord.”
That day on the bridge was the culmination of a long chain of events, says Alston Fitts, a Selma resident and local historian. He chronicles the history of the city in his book “Selma: Queen City of the Black Belt.”
The Dallas County (Ala.) Voters League and the SNCC had been trying for a year to register blacks to vote. The focus of the struggle was the county courthouse, where protesters went in a vain effort to register. Confrontations occurred when Sheriff Jim Clark denied them entry to the building. It was his mounted possemen on the bridge that day in March 1965.
“A local judge had entered a ruling that outlawed any meeting of more than three people where voting rights were being discussed,” Fitts says. “Leaders in the Selma movement invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to come to Selma to take part in the movement. They knew the involvement of Dr. King would bring national attention to Selma. And they knew he would bring expertise on how to stop the stifling tactics being brought to bear against the movement.”
Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a nighttime civil rights march in Marion, Ala. Jackson died a few days later. Photo courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center
But King was not part of the Bloody Sunday march. In February, King had become “discouraged” about the efforts in Selma, May says. “There hadn’t been the event that would capture the attention of the press and consciousness of the country.”
That changed on Feb. 16, May says, when C.T. Vivian, one of the movement’s leaders, had an altercation with Clark on the grounds of the courthouse. Then, on Feb. 18, Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by a state trooper during a nighttime civil rights march in Marion, a town in neighboring Perry County. Jackson died a few days later.
“That was the impetus of the first march, the Bloody Sunday march,” May says. “Several members of the movement in Selma wanted to carry Jimmie Lee Jackson’s body to Montgomery and deliver it to Gov. George Wallace,” a virulent civil rights foe.
Robinson, a Selma activist then known as Amelia Boynton, had helped SNCC protest against white registrars who kept blacks from voting. Her home was used as a headquarters to plan the march.
After the beatings, “the nation came to Selma,” Fitts says. “The suffering of those marchers crossing that bridge into ‘enemy territory’ captured the attention of the country.”
King led a “symbolic” march to the now-infamous bridge on March 9, then led a full-scale march on March 21 from Selma to Montgomery after U.S. District Judge Frank M. Johnson Jr. ordered protection for the demonstrators.
At the start, there were 3,200 marchers, according to the National Park Service. Marchers traveled 12 miles a day, sleeping in fields before reaching Alabama’s capital city on March 25. By then their ranks had swelled to 25,000.
In August, the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
“Of course, the Selma-to-Montgomery march was important, but Bloody Sunday was the critical mass,” May says. “Many people dropped what they were doing and came to Selma in the wake of the attacks and beatings that occurred that day.
“It put the voting rights bill at the top of the agenda in Washington. It accelerated everything.”
Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60 in New Madrid County, Mo., in January 1939. Photo by Arthur Rothstein/LOC/Creative Commons
A Christian anti-hunger group has released a devotional guide to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Va.
“Lament and Hope: A Pan-African Devotional Guide” was produced by Bread for the World and is set to be dedicated at a prayer service at a Washington church on Thursday (Feb. 28), the last day of Black History Month.
The free guide addresses past and current issues of unequal access to land, housing and education. It begins with verses from the Bible’s Book of Lamentations that speak of homelessness and affliction and conclude with a proclamation of the “steadfast love of the Lord.”
The Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith speaks at a Religious Freedom Center class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“We are saying that the history of people of African identity has been a legacy of spiritual resistance,” said the Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith, editor of the guide. “There’s been that resistance against the evils of enslavement and all the things that accompanied that.”
The devotional has been released at the start of a year in which many activities commemorating the arrival of the first African captives in Jamestown are planned, including some by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 400 Years of African-American History Commission that was established by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Trump in early January.
Walker-Smith, senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church relations at Bread for the World, said a delegation of young adults from across Africa plans to represent her organization in August at events planned in Jamestown, where people from the modern-day southwest African country of Angola were brought 400 years ago.
Bread for the World’s 2019 Pan-African Devotional Guide. Image courtesy of Bread for the World
Bread for the World’s guide was produced to help readers answer questions about how to move from lamentation to hope, drawing on the example of African people who were forced into slavery and protested it, she said.
“That spiritual resistance is actually a source of hope and still is a source of hope,” Walker-Smith said.
The guide will be promoted through partnerships with global, African and American networks of churches. It features monthly entries written by current and former leaders of the Angola Council of Churches, the United Theological College of the West Indies and the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative.
The dedication service and the guide itself will encourage participants to contemplate disparities that remain across the globe and determine ways to advocate to eliminate them, Walker-Smith said.
“At the end of the service, there will be a call to action to say you have a role in this narrative, you have an opportunity to be a part of this legacy,” she said. “What are you doing and how can you further this sense of hope?”