Several hundred African-Americans gathered on the mall near the U.S. Capitol Saturday to demand reparations for slavery. Though slavery was abolished at the end of the American Civil War 137 years ago, people at the rally said its effects are still felt. They believe some compensation is due the descendants of slaves who were denied any payment for their servitude in their lifetime.
"Forty acres and a mule." That is what Union General William Sherman promised the freed slaves at the end of the Civil War. Few received as much, and today some of their descendants are demanding an equivalent in the form of reparations.
At a rally on the mall near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, several hundred African-Americans cheered speakers, joined in chants for reparations and waved green, red and black flags standing for earth, blood and black people.
Many in attendance recalled their ancestry in slavery. Ernest Charles, pastor of the St. Xavier Church in Houston, Texas, said as a small girl, his grandfather's grandmother was kidnapped from the coast of Africa and brought to America. She was moved from state to state until she was finally purchased by two brothers named Charles in New Orleans.
That is how I got my name, said Pastor Charles, who grew up free but poor on a plantation in Louisiana. "Today I am here to be a part of this group to let my voice be heard that I, too, feel that we are entitled to reparations for the suffering of our people," he explained.
A woman said slavery has kept her from knowing people who share her blood. "My great-great-great-great-great grandmother, when she was in slavery had 22 children," she pointed out. "But when slavery ended, she had only two of her babies with her. So that is 20 of my relatives, my seeds and line that have disappeared. And we do not who they are or where they are."
Some held signs opposing war with Iraq. Samuel Patterson from California said attacking a Muslim country is not in the interest of black Americans.
"We are against the war in Iraq, causing them all types of hardship and pain and not a chance to earn a living for themselves," he said. "Why would people like Africans in this country who have been oppressed for 400 years want to go and help oppress another human being on this earth?"
One of the rally organizers, Conrad Worrill, chairman of the National Black United Front, said millions of black people support the idea of reparations. Yet less than a thousand turned up at the rally.
Some black Americans oppose the effort because they believe long abolished slavery is not relevant to their lives. They do not want to capitalize on what they say is victimhood.
The Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, founder of a black self-help group in Los Angeles, told The Washington Post, "If those people can afford to go to a Washington rally, they do not need reparations."
But reparations backers says the effects of slavery have yet to be fully explored. So they support a bill in the U.S. Congress that would establish a commission to examine this issue.