Just about a year ago, Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates caused quite an uproar with his article, “The Case for Reparations.”
It is a very long article and a very important article. It starts in this way: “Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.”
What jumps out at me most right now is the phrase “compounding moral debts.” I believe Mr. Coates is absolutely right in saying that America will never be whole until we pay off those moral debts. But also distressing to me is that, no matter what I believe or write or do on this subject, as a white person, I will always feel the burden of that moral debt.
Things could have been different had not a young man with sociopathic tendencies not stood in a narrow space in a theater in Washington, DC, and pulled a trigger.
General William Tecumseh Sherman had completed his March to the Sea by January 1865, pushing back General Joe Johnston’s army (and there is reason to believe that Johnston allowed his army to be pushed back) and taken all the important Southern coastal areas. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton traveled to Savannah where he and Sherman met with black community leaders and worked out a plan to grant land to formerly enslaved African-Americans and African-Americans who had served in the Union forces.
“Forty acres and a mule” was the basic plan, and General Sherman released Field Order #15 on January 6. In part it reads:
“I. The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the Negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States. “II. At Beaufort, Hilton Head, Savannah, Fernandina, St. Augustine and Jacksonville, the Blacks may remain in their chosen or accustomed vocations – but on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves, subject only to the United States military authority and the acts of Congress.”
To the shame of assassinating President Lincoln may be added to John Wilkes Booth’s infamy that this plan would never be allowed to be fulfilled. Default President Andrew Johnson, who had been a slaveholder and was a Southern Democrat, rescinded the order and ensured that all of the land was returned to ex-Confederates.
So now, in 2015, we still have to talk about reparations and moral debts. When Mr. Coates added the adjective “compounded” to “moral debts,” he refers not only to the failure of Reconstruction, but to Jim Crow laws, lynchings, housing inequality, wage inequality – all of the blasphemies committed against African-Americans since the first enslaved people were brought to this country in the 17th century.
I might add that the murder of Trayvon Martin is a direct link to the overturning of Field Order #15, for what right has a young black man to be walking at night in a gated community? Or so segments of our society think.
The names of the murdered African-Americans for whom no justice has been done makes such a long list now, but all of them might be alive had not we compounded our moral debt to enslaved people.
So what do we do now? Where to begin?
Passing Representative John Conyers’ HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, would be a start. Representative Conyers has been introducing the bill in one form or another every year since he’s been in office. He named it HR 40 in honor of “forty acres and a mule.” Oddly, it never makes it to the House floor, and no one in the Senate has yet written a version of the bill for that body.
The issue isn’t going to go away, though. I say, it’s now or never; what do you think?
You can see the full article by Ta-Nehisi Coates here: “The Case for Reparations”