Reparations save America for everyone

Charles Ogletree Jr., a leader of the reparations movement, spoke on "The Current Reparations Debate" during the Edward L. Barrett Jr. Lecture held Oct. 22 at UC Davis.

An internationally acclaimed civil rights attorney and academic, he is helping lead a legal team seeking reparations for descendants of American slaves. The team will file a suit against the U.S. government during the next few weeks, Ogletree said.

  • professor at Harvard Law School, Ogletree has publised widely on race and justice in the United States. He is author of Beyond the Rodney King Story: An Investigation of Police Conduct in Minority Communities.

The Edward L. Barrett Jr. Lecture is named for the school's founding dean, himself a civil rights expert. Ogletree spoke before a full audience in the Moot Court Room at King Hall, fielding questions from the audience after his speech. The following are excerpts from that speech:

Many of us believe, with good reason, that the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001, were the first time citizens of the mainland United States were subjected to aerial assault.

But, the first aerial bombardment of American citizens on home soil probably happened in 1921 in Tulsa, Okla., when private aircraft were used to destroy Greenwood, widely recognized then as the black Wall Street of America. Planes dropped turpentine or incendiary bombs on the buildings to help burn them...killing dozens, destroying a generation of economic prosperity in segregated communities.

But not just in 1921 have we seen this sort of ritual conduct that has not been fully addressed. Many of you have heard about the Rosewood massacre in 1923 ...(and) a few of you will have heard about the ritual massacre in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898; or Springfield, Mo., in 1909; or Helena, Ark., in 1919, or Sherman, Texas, in 1930...or the thousands of lynchings that lasted... (to) the virtual lynching of James Bird in Jasper, Texas, in 1998.

That's why the reparations debate is so important today. Because, if we can't even recall the 20th century can we even go back to address the serious, pervasive and documented harm to millions of African slaves who built the most powerful country in the world?

  • lot of people criticized (David) Horowitz for what some called his racist and insensitive claims against reparations. I actually credit him with raising the reparations debate from where it was to a higher level. (However) he assumes, for example, that reparations involve a demand for payment from all whites to the benefit of all blacks. I certainly don't advocate such a shotgun approach as legal strategy or legislative agenda, or as a matter of racial justice.

Part of the reparations movement is to pose questions of responsibility and accountability to blacks and whites. It also asks us to take account of our own behavior as communities of color and to explore the moral consequences of our interactions.

The Reparations Coordinating Committee was started about three years ago with a group of social scientists, lawyers, civil rights and tort lawyers, and public officials. Everyone is working on a pro bono basis. They all see this as the most important and significant issue addressing race relations in America in their lifetime, and that it's not about money.

Reparations should not be distributed to the Oprah Winfreys and the Michael Jacksons and the Bill Cosbys and the Charles Ogletrees of the world. …Winning the battle of reparations would be a pyrrhic victory if we lose the war of transforming America. My goal is to have these funds in a fund available to the poorest of the poor in the African American community - descendants of slaves who have not ever received the fruits of true integration or affirmative action.

(Education, health care, employment and housing) are four areas where, if we put substantial resources, then we can transform America. It's not a solution that helps Black America; it helps all America. When you take people off of welfare and put them in workfare in a meaningful way...that's an American solution, not a Black solution. When you improve the healthcare of children, young people and adults, it improves the quality and productivity of all of America, not just Black America.

As hard as it may appear to some, I am truly talking about racial healing and racial progress. We've never had a period where there's been a universal acceptance on issues that relate to race.

What's a sign of progress? New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, California, Illinois, Texas. All these are states where lawsuits have been filed about reparations. (And) just a few weeks ago a federal judge in the southern district of Florida ruled in a case of the Hungarian Jews who tried to recover their assets stolen during the war in the 1940s. They were told by the government it's too late. (But) this judge looked and said: "No, this is not a case where we will find that they cannot bring a claim because we see a continuing violation and we see government efforts to deny the opportunity to litigate it." And here we have a judge willing to say that the statute of limitations has not ended.

The reparations that we're doing is discussed publicly as an American issue, but we're looking very carefully and researching very thoroughly Africa's culpability, the role of Europe in the issue of slavery, and other countries as well. It's not a limited focus.

People oppose the reparations movement for a number of reasons. One is that "I wasn't even here" or "We didn't own any slaves." But you benefited. …If you were white, you could drink at the fountain. You could go to the restaurant. You could sleep in the hotel. You could live in the neighborhood. You could attend the school. You could vote. …The only reason you would be excluded was because you were Black. …

Langston Hughes talked about this 100 years ago when he talked about the whole idea that if we're going to have progress it can't be for one group or one individual, it has to be progress for all. I, too, have a dream, and it's Langston Hughes' dream.

And when I talk about racial progress, racial tolerance, racial justice in America that believes in equal justice under law for all, I'm trying, I'm desperately trying and praying that we can save this dream for all.

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Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,

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