The Case for Reparations by Mumia Abu-Jamal

"They got mad at us because we was free and they let us go without a crumb of anything and without a penny and nothing but what we had on our backs .... We had a hard time then and I've been having a hard time ever since."
-- Frank Fikes, ex-slave [Genovese, E.D., Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974), p. 99]

The plaintive voice of Frank Fikes could've been echoed millions of times in the brutal aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, and would last (with the brief, fleeting exception of the Reconstruction period) for over a century longer.

What a cruel "freedom" awaited those four millions who witnessed the victory of the Union over the Confederacy. On January 16, 1865, two years after black troops restored Union hopes, Union General William Tecumsah Sherman would issue Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and the low country rice coastlands south of Charleston, for some 30 miles inland, for the exclusive settlement of blacks. Each family would receive forty acres of fertile land, and the Union army would loan several mules.

In March, 1865, Congress would pass a law allowing "every male citizen, refugee or freedman," [...] "not more than forty acres of land."

By the end of the year, with the War won, another General, Oliver Otis Howard, would tell some 40,000 Blacks that they could not keep the lands allotted to them by Sherman. With President Abraham Lincoln dead by April, 1865, the next President, Andrew Johnson, would veto the "forty acre" law passed by Congress, and the road to betrayal was chosen. Johnson would order the return of plantations to the former owners of slaves and lands, if they pledged loyalty.

Decades later, after over half a century had passed, a former slave, Sally Dixon, would remember, "We was told when we got freed we was going to get forty acres of land and a mule. 'Stead of that, we didn't get nothing." [Kelley, R.D.G. & E. Lewis, eds., To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans (Oxford Univ. Press, 2000), p.240]

Today, over a century and a half after the issuance of Special Field Order No. 15, the words "forty acres and a mule" evokes bitterness in Black hearts, for it signals the loathsome betrayal of the Union Army and the U.S. government of a people held over 244 years in bondage. Here is the long-buried roots of the reparations movement, a movement bequeathed by ancient ancestors, who were denied justice.

Needless to say, the notion of reparations is a controversial one in a society as Negrophobic as the United States. Some, notably a well-known Jewish conservative, have damned the notion of reparations, claiming to base his objections on, a.) The difficulty of identifying descendants; b.) The passage of time; c.) The relative well-being of U.S. Blacks, and d.) The bad-feeling such an action would evoke in whites who see this as "divisive." He also questions who should be asked to pay. The essential point he advances is that the past is past.

What's wrong with such an argument?

To say a thing is difficult is not an argument for it not to be done. It's a rather lame excuse.

To argue that too much time has passed is to damn those who did not do the right thing at the right time; not an argument against doing it now. Union General Sherman and a Radical Republican Congress did the right thing; General cum Freedman's Bureau Commissioner Howard and President Johnson didn't.

How can any self-respecting Jew argue 'the past is past?'

If the biblical texts are any measure of the Jewish past, how did they interact with the nation that held them in bondage? The book of Exodus 12:33-37 (KJV) gives us an interesting insight:

33 And the Egyptians were urgent upon the [Jewish] people, that they might send them out of the land in haste; for they said, We Be all dead men.

34 And the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading-troughs being bound up in their clothes upon their shoulders.

35 And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they borrowed of the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment:

36 And the Lord gave the people favour in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they lent unto them such things as they required. And they spoiled the Egyptians.

37 And the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand on foot that were men, beside children. [The Bible]

Now, one question: Do you really believe the Egyptians "lent" the Jews gold, silver, and "such things as they required"? (If so, is there any biblical record of the children of Israel returning to Egypt to return what was "lent"?)

Is there any serious question that this was a biblical warrant for reparations, of such a cost that it "spoiled the Egyptians?" (Does anyone think this was "divisive"?).

Did the Egyptians carry the Israelites from their homes, beat them, torture them, deculturate them, humiliate them and forbid them from learning the ways, the names, the faiths of their fathers? Did they shackle them and carry them across the burning sands, splitting families and tribes, so that they would slave for their Egyptian captors?

The Bible reports that the Jews entered Egypt because Israel was facing famine (Gen. 42). The Israelites sold their own brother into slavery, but the Pharoah granted him rank, and privilege. After the death of their father, Jacob, 70 relatives entered Egypt, and lived splendidly there. Again, Exodus:

1:7 And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them.

And, as for the past, if it's not so important, why then do Jews celebrate Passover, based on their liberation story, some 5,000 years later - annually?

For some, the past is never past.

Years ago, a young Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale got together to write the 10 Point Program of the Black Panther Party. The October 1966 B.P.P. Platform and Program was broken down into two parts:

What We Want, and What We Believe. This is one of them:

3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.

We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.

As ever, Huey P. Newton was ahead of his time. This may be an idea that is now right on time.

2001 Mumia Abu-Jamal
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