Reparations movement takes step toward justice

The lesson thus far in the effort to win reparations for slavery seems to be that crime does pay sometimes, if you can put justice off long enough.

But there are some people who don't want to leave it at that, who don't want to just shrug and move on.

Even when we can't undo the crime, the pursuit of some kind of justice is worthwhile, not because it will make a victim whole, but because the pursuit of justice is good for a society.

A society with a conscience is better than one without a conscience.

Last month, a group of lawyers sued several companies that benefited from slavery in the United States. This is just the beginning of an effort to move the quest for reparations out of the political arena where it has never been successful, into a realm in which justice is supposed to outweigh expediency.

It was expediency that left us with this problem in the first place.

In the years immediately after the Civil War, Congress repeatedly passed laws intended to give former slaves a chance to establish themselves as free and self-sufficient. President Andrew Johnson vetoed them all.

Northern businessmen wanted to resume their business relationships with Southern growers, and most white folks in the North soon lost interest in the fate of black folks, anyway.

The nation's wounds were healed at the expense of black people, whose interests were sacrificed in order to bring the South back into the union peaceably.

For a century after the Civil War ended, the nation looked the other way while black people were routinely deprived of their rights and even their lives. Plenty of people alive today were robbed of their rights and their potential with government complicity.

As a nation, we celebrate the story of European immigrants. I've often lost myself in books about their struggles, admiring their efforts to make a new world home. But there is something puzzling that doesn't get mentioned.

During the years of heaviest immigration from Europe, between 1880 and 1920, there was a huge population of underemployed and unemployed black Americans in the rural South.

The jobs that industrial growth demanded were filled by white immigrants. Blacks needed not apply. During this same period, anti-black racism reaches new heights. There are two lynchings a week throughout the 1890s. That's terrorism.

What was the reward for hard work in America? Black people who were successful risked being burned out or killed.

The tactics became somewhat more subtle in the 1930s, but they were still effective in preventing all but a few black people from living the lives available to most other Americans.

The damage can be measured and proved. Black farmers recently won a suit that could pay as much as $2 billion by proving that for decades the government refused them aid it made available to white farmers.

Money can't always undo wrongs, but it is evidence that crime is taken seriously by society.

Think of all the benefits that have been available to other Americans because they have been denied to black Americans: jobs, housing, education, on and on.

Think of who was able to pave a way for their children and grandchildren; the ability to leave a legacy depended on skin color.

Specific cases will be proved, but there is something more than that at stake — our past and our future. Somehow we have to address the memory of those millions who died enslaved and the futures of those millions who are now mired at the bottom of this society as a consequence of generations of racism.

One of the leaders of the reparations movement, Charles Ogletree, addressed an audience at the University of Washington a few days ago about his expectations.

Ogletree, a Harvard law professor, said he's not interested in individual payments. He wants us to establish a fund to address the needs of the neediest African Americans to help lift them into the mainstream.

"We could not live the American dream like other immigrants," he said. "We lived the American nightmare."

Owing to the silence of textbooks and newspapers, what most Americans think they know about slavery and the century of legal oppression that followed it is often inaccurate, to say the least.

It may be that the biggest benefit of the newly energized reparations movement will be the creation of a conversation that clears away myths and offers the country a clearer view of its history and a better understanding of its present.

That in itself would be a big step toward justice.

Jerry Large can be reached at 206-464-3346 or More columns at