The Reparations Movement is like a train. The train left the station during slavery with the enslaved demanding some recompense for their, and their ancestors, forced free labor. That labor was in conditions which sought to strip them of their basic human dignity: their languages, their right to have and maintain families, their right to be free of State terror. In the 1860s it, the train, picked up those demanding passage of legislation to codify General Sherman's field Order 15 making 40 acres of federal land available to previously enslaved Africans.
In the 1890s and early 1900s, the train stopped in Nashville, TN, and had to add new cars to to pick up Callie House and Rev. Isaiah Dickerson and the organization they led, The National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association. They sought pensions for previously enslaved Africans, and at one time the organization counted 600,000 members. This Ex-Slave Association was de-stabilized from within and without, and its ultimate demise came when the leadership was accused and convicted of mail fraud -- a charge that was borne of racism and a desire of the U.S. government to destroy the organization, although it was merely seeking some semblance of justice for the previously enslaved.
The train, however, was not derailed by this obstacle. Its speed was slowed and its passengers and workers decreased. Yet it kept moving forward. Marcus Garvey got on the train. The Universal Negro Improvement Association/African Communities League galvanized hundreds of thousands demanding reparations and repatriation, driven by self-help. As with Callie House's organization before Garvey, the UNIA was destabilized when the U.S. government framed Garvey on charges of having received a donation through the mail and not having provided the promised response. Still, this act of de-stabilization -- like the one before it -- did not derail the train. Rather, it decreased its fuel, its workers and passengers, slowing the train's progress and delaying the time of arrival.
As the train continued to chug along, doggedly heading for its final destination, it was joined by, among others, Queen Mother Moore, the Nation of Islam, the Republic of New Africa, the Lost Found Nation of Islam, the Black Reparations Commission, the National Conference of Black Lawyers, the New Afrikan People's Organization, ANRO, and others. Other groups and any number of individuals began to get on the train at various stations. The train was filled with people embracing various perspectives on reparations. Their ticket for the train ride was their determination to see reparations won and their willingness not simply to be passengers but, rather, to become the workers and fuel for the progress of the train.
With the formation of N'COBRA in 1988, a consolidated set of cars was created. The cars served to embrace all the different views about reparations and to be open to passengers who here-to-before had been outside the Reparations Movement. These were "mainstream Americans," integrationists, leftists and, even, the politically conservative. N'COBRA charged itself with opening up the passenger/worker/supplier list to everyone -- encouraging, particularly, African-descended people from all backgrounds to see the importance of getting the train to its final destination with all deliberate speed.
So, under the leadership of N'COBRA the train picked up more cars to accommodate additional passengers/worker/suppliers. N'COBRA brought on board organizations and people from Delta Sigma Theta, NAACP, the National Bar Association, Sigma Gamma Rho, and others. In 1988 it joined forces with Congressman John Conyers from Michigan, reviewing his proposed legislation for a Reparations Study bill, and joined in support of this legislation, formally introduced for the first time in 1989. Through its various chapters, N'COBRA got state and local legislatures to pass resolutions to support Conyers' bill, submitted each Congressional session in the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, usually designated H.R. 40. The varied resolutions usually cited the work of N'COBRA. The coalition developed legislative, litigative, direct action, and economic development strategies to fuel the train and increase the speed with which it was moving to its destination -- reparations.
With the increase in reparations activity, the train went from one that traveled the back rails to one that was in the main thoroughfares. The Florida legislature voted to give reparations to the victims of state-sanctioned race violence in Rosewood, which occurred in 1923. A reparations commission was formed by the legislature in Oklahoma to look at the destruction of what was popularly known as "Black Wall Street" but ultimately failed to vote any reparations. The film Rosewood was released. Another film, Amistad, followed on its heels.
Then the year 2000 hit with a bang. Randall Robinson's book, The Debt, was released in January. Deadria Farmer Paellman's research, showing the linkage of Aetna Insurance Company to slavery was reported in the mainstream press. The train is moving fast now, yet at every stop it is picking up more and more passengers.
Many who have been on the train for a while start feeling crowded. Some who just got on the train want to ignore those who have been traveling for a long time. There is a certain excitement, a buzz going through the train that has a feel of anticipation as well as possessiveness. The train is moving and everyone wants to own it -- wants to claim that it is their fuel, their ticket, their effort that is responsible for the train's momentum. The crowds outside the train clamor for a look as the train is speeding down the track. Many of them, prodigies of the tinsel-town mentality that is uniquely Western, clamor to see those with mainstream notoriety. They tend to ignore the less famous, hard-working masses and leaders of the masses and seek to be in the shadow of those who they feel have some status. There is disruption on the train. A low rumbling is going on. Yet the train keeps moving. It has picked up some speed on its own. The rumbling is not slowing it down, yet rocking it ever so slightly. Then, lo and behold, the train picks up additional international passengers. The preparatory process for the World Conference Against Racism includes organizations that embrace reparations: December 12th Movement, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Race Relations Institute, ALIANZA and others. And the train becomes an international carrier, linking the reparations movement in the United States to reparations movements throughout the Americas, in Europe and in Africa. The train is adding new cars, day after day; month after month. The challenges, those hills and valleys we spoke about earlier, at times loom large. And so, we pause, if only for a moment to identify them in order to surmount them -- because after all, we cannot allow anything to slow this train and stop its forward progression.
The Hills and Valleys Along the Way to Victory
Clearly, the history of this Reparations Movement reveals one major hill and valley as government actions to destabilize and destroy the momentum to reparations. The imprisonment of our leaders, resulting in significant destabilization of the organizations which they led, is an age-old tactic and not one specifically directed at reparation work. We saw it in COINTELPRO, with Black Liberation organizations such as the Black Panthers.
The diversity in the movement is another hill and valley. It is more comfortable working with people and organizations that agree on basic strategies to win reparations and the forms it should take. It is harder to maintain the momentum of the train when there is diversity in ideas about the route to reparations and the form of reparations. As the diversity increases, N'COBRA must continue to be a stabilizing force; the all-embracing coalition that allows for and in fact creates opportunities for open dialogue for the purpose of having an inclusive picture of reparations and a route that allows for the inclusion of the most people. Competition for the limelight is another hill and valley. In order for the train to get to its final destination, it must allow for people from every walk of life to get on. Some of these people will be well-known in their own right and at times get the attention that many of those who have worked in the vineyards have not gotten and may never get. We have to continue to respond principally, not letting the train get sidetracked and not derailing it ourselves because the headliners are not who we may have chosen. We have to utilize the knowledge we have in public relations to keep the story out there and to see the value, in fact, of having on board some those with "star factors."
Competition for strategies is another hill and valley. In order to get to the final destination we will need to use many different mechanisms and strategies. There is no one strategy that will win the day. The train needs porters, engineers, cooks, fuel, furniture and passengers to name only some things. The train's fuel may be wood at one time, coal at another time, and raw determination at another. Similarly, we have to respect and support each of the primary strategies of N'COBRA including legislative lobbying, direct action, economic development, public education, and litigation. The train will get to the final destination not with one, but all efforts. Each of the strategies works together to pull and push the train into the final station. Each of the strategies can be seen as supportive of the entire movement.
Finally, we have to put our money where our mouth is. The adage rings true: "Freedom ain't Free." We have to raise the money necessary to keep the train moving. We have to dig deep into our pockets for the price of the ticket, the price of the meals, the fuel, the supplies and the furnishings necessary to keep the train running, to add new cars and to get to our final destination - the obtaining of reparations.
The Victory is There - We Must Claim It
When you are planning a vacation or even a big business trip you often visualize being there before you get there. You can see yourself having fun with friends or relatives or, in the case of business, participating in the meeting or obtaining some needed service. If you watch your visualization, you see that what you expected is often obtained. The same is true for reparations.
Let's hold the vision of obtaining reparations. Visualize us sitting around the table negotiating the terms of reparations. Picture a successful outcome in that negotiation -- what do you want for reparations? Stay with that picture as we traverse the land on this train picking up passengers, workers and fuel along the way. Claim the victory and then all the hills and valleys will be just that, hills and valleys that will be traversed. Claim the victory and no power can stop us. Claim the victory now and see it unfold. I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can see the vindication of our ancestors through receipt of reparations. I can see the striking down of laws that maintain vestiges of slavery. I can see the schoolbooks depicting our history with respect and new found accuracy. I can see our children learning about the contributions of their ancestors from the beginning of time until today. I can see the poverty stricken communities being infused with resources to provide adequate housing and other life-sustaining and enhancing facilities. I see it.
Victory is ours!