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Group Seeking US Slavery Reparations Regrouping After Losing Round in Court - 2004-02-21

A movement in the United States to win financial reparations for descendants of southern black slaves is regrouping after a major legal setback. Last month, a federal district court judge dismissed a lawsuit against several U.S. corporations that the plaintiffs accuse of having profited from slavery.

As Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched triumphantly through the South at the close of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, he issued an order guaranteeing each freed black slave's family forty acres, about sixteen hectares, plus one of the army's mules, in order to start a new life.

But the freed men got neither land nor mules. They were set adrift to fend for themselves. Seven generations later, advocates have tried to get descendants a figurative forty acres and a mule in the form of financial compensation for the slaves' hardships and unpaid labor. A New Orleans, Louisiana, firefighter, Ukale Mwendo, a leader in N'Cobra, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, says reparations would close an old, festering wound.

"People around the world and throughout human history have used this same principle: When wrong is done to you as an individual or a group, it's only right and just that the wrongdoer repair the damage that has been done," he said. "And 'repair,' that's the root word in 'reparations.'"

Mr. Mwendo points out that the U.S. Congress in 1988 voted to pay $20,000 to each survivor of Japanese internment camps in the western United States during World War II, and that Germany is still paying Israel reparations for Nazi atrocities against Jews.

The recent reparations lawsuit focused on big U.S. corporations, including Fleet Bank in Boston, Aetna Insurance, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company, and three railroads.

Brooklyn, New York, attorney Roger Wareham represented those who brought suit. He says the transatlantic slave trade is not some dusty historical footnote. Like the Holocaust, he says, it was an unredressed crime against humanity, whose aftermath of racism and poverty still scars the black community. The corporations that were sued, Mr. Wareham says, are successors to companies that profited from slavery a century and a half ago. Though they may be virtuous today, they owe black America a debt. "But for the criminal activity they were [once] involved in and profited from, they would not be where they are today," he said. "The people who work there now, their status, their income, come from an act that was illegal and profitable and for whom the victims were never compensated. The descendants of those victims never received the benefit of the wealth that their forefathers and mothers had created. It's a question of equity, that you can't continue to benefit from an unjust act."

The most vehement critics of reparations argue that it is little more than a scam, designed to drop a windfall of cash, which could be quickly squandered, into some people's pockets. Conservative columnist Linda Chavez has written that reparations are what she terms a recipe for racial hatred.

Mr. Wareham answers that the movement is, instead, a chance for reconciliation of the races, a settling of accounts.

"When some people act blithely like things are getting better, and you're doing OK, it creates a resentment that won't go away until there's been real efforts to redress those condition," he said.

John McWhorter, a black man who is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think tank, wrote a chapter opposing reparations in a new book called Should America Pay? The reparations movement is based, he says, on a sense that many African-Americans have today, that to be an authentically black person is to feel that no matter how good things get, you are a victim, owed something by white America. These folks forget, he argues, that "there already were reparations. The expansion of welfare in the 1960s was done especially for poor black people. We now have something called 'affirmative action.' That was done as a reparation, in particular for just the sort of black people who tend to pursue reparations now. There's a sense that for the past 35 years, we have been giving black people a special break and a leg up. And the reason there's that feeling is because it's true."

The federal judge who ruled against the reparations lawsuit said it could be filed again if some of his concerns are met. One of those concerns was that, in his view, the plaintiffs had not shown how African-Americans today are being harmed by the corporations that were sued.

Reparations advocates, including Michigan Congressman John Conyers, have so far been unsuccessful in getting the issue before the Congress. The lead plaintiff in the recent lawsuit, a legal researcher named Daedria Farmer-Paellmann, says advocates will soon turn to other pressure tactics against companies they believe are profiting from slavery. She says those tactics will include advertising campaigns and even product boycotts.