On This Stormy MLK Day, There’s No Better Time to Call for Reparatory Justice!
By Nkechi Taifa, Esq.
The terror Blacks feel is in our bones. For me, it began when white storm clouds of terror hung over the home of Mose Wright late one August night in 1955, when white, armed terrorists demanded his great-nephew, 14-year-old Emmett Till, be handed over to them. I was scarcely eight months old. Young Emmett had made the mistake of being from Chicago and, not heeding “The Talk” his mother had given to him upon his departure to Mississippi, his bloated and bloodied body was later found disfigured and dismembered in the Tallahatchie River.
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Much like the mob of Capitol insurgents of almost two weeks ago, the abductors publicly bragged about what they had done. Like countless white police officers accused of killing Black men and women, they were acquitted at trial. And not unlike how the January 6 Capitol insurrectionists see themselves, the duo on trial — Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam — were considered folk heroes who protected America from the great miscegenation fear.
Mamie Till-Mobley, Emmett’s mother, was at the trial of her son’s murderers. Like millions of us watching television two weeks ago, she felt rage and hopelessness at the white-supremacist violation. So did an NAACP activist in Montgomery, Alabama named Rosa Parks, who remembered Till on a fateful bus commute ride home, and defiantly acted in a way that reverberated not only throughout the present world, but the Realm of the Ancestors and the Land of the Unborn as well.
Till’s mutilated body was brought back to Chicago for a funeral at the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. The grieving mother had not changed one thing since viewing his body in the morgue, except putting him in a nice suit.
She kept the casket open, because, she said, she did not want to bury his memory under the rug. She wanted the world to see what had been done to her son.
The world did and the photos galvanized a generation of youth who would just 10 years later become some of the most radical activists of the 20th century.
Today that casket sits in a special room at our beloved “Blacksonian,” officially known as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, deep within now-locked down Washington, D.C. It has always been guarded, closed and barred from being photographed, demanding silence and quiet reverence. Thankfully, it was far away from the Capitol terror, protected. But it represents so well what America has just gone through. Feeling violated again since many have mentioned the now 20-years-old 9–11 in this context, I hope white people now know what it’s like to be Mose Wright and Mamie Till-Mobley, or George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The caskets have been opened, and what looks and sounds like ridiculous Halloween dress-up characters or badly-conceived pop boy-bands — The Proud Boys, The Boogaloo Bois — have come out. They are real-life White Walkers channeling decades of so-called grievances into a terror-based crusade based on the boldest of bald-faced lies about the 2020 Presidential election. Mobley’s shriek for justice at the funeral carried a strong enough echo to not only reach a small Smithsonian room more than seven decades later in another century but seemingly to pierce outer space, to dare to touch eternity while still simultaneously, somehow, staying rooted in the Black Nation’s collective memory.
The “Open Up the Casket” metaphor is incorporated in my many speeches about reparations. But I’m still adjusting to the huge vault that opened up almost two weeks ago. I listened to Democracy Now! on the Friday before the Martin Luther King holiday (King’s actual birthday; he would have been 92) and reporter A.C. Thompson, a veteran of covering white-supremacist groups, talked about how the Capitol siege had been building for quite some time within the purposely invisible, closed casket of white denial.
“If you go back to January 2020, in Richmond, Virginia, 20,000 armed people showed up at the State House there. In the spring, there were protests that were armed in Michigan at the State House, including one in which people stormed the building and intimidated legislators with weapons, with AR-15 assault rifles. We saw the Idaho State House get stormed. We saw the Oregon State House get stormed. We saw, in Olympia, Washington, by the Capitol there, there were shootings in the street two weeks in a row. Two people were shot, one each week. And so, this had been building for a long time.
I personally was at an armed rally at the Virginia State House a couple months ago, where about 50 men with weapons showed up and basically dared the police to arrest them, because they were in violation of the law. So, this was something that had been coming for a long time. And if you looked at the rhetoric online and you looked at what had been said by members of these groups for a long time, it was all about revolution, it was all about death to tyrants, it was all about civil war, for a long time.
On the day of the event, we saw militia groups like the Three Percenters, the Oath Keepers, who were playing a big role. We saw the conspiracy theorists, like the QAnon people, who were there. We saw, I think, a significant role played by the Proud Boys, who you could call an ultranationalist street-fighting gang or group. And I think we saw a lot of military vets and some current military there. And there were also people who belong to straight-up white supremacist or white nationalist groups.”
Black people have had to stomach official, sanctioned denial about white terrorism for centuries. Two weeks ago indisputably revealed that white terrorism must not be ignored, marginalized or diminished.
There are many reasons for the Capitol siege. One reason is this: Black and progressive people are winning fundamental battles in America, from the ballot box to the tennis court (I’m thinking of Naomi Osaka’s masks), and the issue of reparations has emerged as a key vantage point. That’s why the Ku Klux Klan casket opened up and the Proud Boys, QAnon, The Tea Party, etc., came running out. They see that their writing on the wall, heralding the beginning of the end of white majority rule, is in hip hop graffiti.
Let’s look at some highlights from the last five years or so. The New York Times Magazine publishes an article by Nikole Hannah-Jones directly calling for reparations. The city of Chicago agrees to pay Black people for the tortures of its police department. In Evanston, Ill. funds raised by taxes on cannabis are going to fund reparations initiatives. Jurisdictions throughout the country are establishing reparations task forces to look inside their own caskets and make recommendations for remedy. More co-sponsors than ever have signed onto the federal reparations study/remedy bill, and a Senate counter-part has been introduced. Slowly, parts of America are awakening and understanding that the role that federal, state and local governments, corporations, industries, religious institutions, educational institutions, private estates and other entities played in supporting the institution of slavery and its vestiges are roles that can no longer be ignored, dismissed, or swept under the rug. The time is now ripe that they be recognized and examined, discussed and redressed.
In this seventh year of the United Nations’ International Decade of People of African Descent, there is serious work being done, but not necessarily in the United States. There are strong movements in the Caribbean and throughout the diaspora demanding reparatory justice. In the U.S. in particular, the refusal to forthrightly address this issue resulted in a catastrophe which still reverberates today.
There were no amends for illegal kidnapping, cultural assault and nearly 300 years of forced free labor, followed by 100 years of convict leased labor, black codes, sharecropping, the peonage system, lynchings, mass murders, systemic racism, Jim Crow apartheid, gerrymandering, redlining, educational inequities and mass incarceration, just to name a few.
And, there are reasons why our people are dying disproportionately from the coronavirus. We have inherited centuries of trauma which has travelled through our genes, resulting in severe health deficits. Amends need to be addressed across the board, to also include textbooks that tell the truth about history from an African-centered perspective, and pardons to COINTELPRO-era political prisoners.
So why are seemingly half of the white folk in this country so upset? They are upset because they fear this coming reckoning.
They see our “wokeness” and forward movement. They are still mad we had a Black president. We are about to inaugurate a Black Asian female Vice President. That is what is behind the fear we see on outrageous display. Yesteryear’s whites who claim innocence to slavery were the same ones brandishing weapons and handcuffs inside the U.S. Capitol, on a search-and-destroy mission for lawmakers as diverse as Vice President Mike Pence (who they feel betrayed by), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who they detest as a progressive firebrand.
I was as young as AOC once — in fact, even younger and yes, much more militant. As a Black Power teen who sometimes sat on the lap of the brother doing security at the office of the local Black Panther Party, it was Point Number 3 of the Party’s Ten-Point Platform and Program that led me down a path I’ve been proud to have trod for the past 50 years:
3. 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 genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered 6,000,000 Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over 50,000,000 Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.
That point stuck with me because, growing up in the nation’s capital, I constantly felt the lack of power and it flustered and frustrated me. I knew that Black people had been kidnapped and brought to this country to labor for free as slaves, stripped of our language, religions and culture, raped and tortured, and then subjected to lynchings, police brutality, inferior education, bad housing and mediocre health care. It was a straight line that connected the past and the present.
It was only later that I learned very specific flashpoints, such as the decimations of entire Black communities in Rosewood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma or Wilmington, North Carolina and Elaine, Arkansas, as well as the massacre and displacement of their countless Black victims. Some incidents were public, such as those atrocities. But others were quiet, hidden, like the kidnapping and rape of Black females that could happen almost anytime, or how modern gynecology was founded on the experimentation of Black women without anesthesia. I also learned that the blood trail of the American wing of the slave trade led straight to seemingly respectable U.S. institutions such as banks, universities, insurance companies, and newspapers, all of which made enormous profits on the back of African misery.
In all my pain, I found a magic word, one way more powerful than Shazam or Abracadabra or Open Sesame. It was a word that gave my pain definition: Reparations! To find a word, a term one is searching for imbues a person with a new purpose. The word itself can define the world and then give direction to the deed.
So I went out and talked about reparations. I was ridiculed. Too militant. Too extreme. I was learning that Black radical movements are always laughed at, particularly at first encounter.
As I got older, I saw the historic genealogy: Callie House. Marcus Garvey. Queen Mother Moore. Imari Obadele. Ray Jenkins. Dorothy Lewis. It was a storm that had echoed throughout the centuries; there was no substantial period in American history where our people neglected the reparations claim. Even Martin Luther King called for its equivalent: he proposed a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, that would provide redress for both the historical victimization and exploitation of Blacks as well as their present-day degradation.
While I attempted to debate reparations, I did what many young Blacks did during the 1960s and 70s: I joined a movement for Black pride, power and land. My home was the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), a group that demanded five states in the deep South as part of a reparations settlement from the United States. The RNA supported James Forman’s Black Manifesto, which in 1969 called for white churches and synagogues to pay Black people half-a-billion dollars in unpaid wages. The RNA drafted an Anti-Depression Program which called for a lump sum reparations down payment and a negotiating committee between its government and the U.S. government, and successfully had it adopted at the 1972 National Black Political Assembly Convention. Amusingly, Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose 2014 Atlantic cover story on reparations opened the door for several 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates to take the idea seriously, was not even born when all this happened. But his father, Baltimore Black Panther Paul Coates, was a friend and sympathizer.
When the Republic of New Afrika President Imari Obadele in 1987 issued the call which resulted in the formation of N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, the word reparations and the movement behind it became less marginal. The following year, it became public policy when the United States government granted reparations to the Japanese-Americans who they had unfairly interned during World War II. By then, I was a lawyer, and well-entrenched in the knowledge that reparatory justice was a well-established principle of both domestic and international law. We in N’COBRA worked closely with U.S. Rep. John Conyers in strategically using the Japanese-American reparations model (i.e. a study commission bill) in the introduction of H.R. 40 (for the 40 acres and a mule owed freedmen and freedwomen during Reconstruction). After passage of the bill, Japanese-American detention camp survivors received a formal apology, cash payments, a trust fund, and pardons for those who resisted internment, so why shouldn’t we Black taxpayers who were, in actuality, helping to pay for amends to other groups, use the same strategy for ourselves?
Then and now, I believe reparations for Black people in the U.S. must satisfy four elements:
1) The formal acknowledgment of historical wrong and an official, unfettered apology.
2) The recognition that the injury has continued throughout the years and still manifests today.
3) The commitment to redress by culpable parties who enjoyed unjust enrichment, including federal, state and local government, corporations and industries, religious and educational institutions, and private estates.
4) The actual compensation, in whatever form or forms are agreed upon.
Moreover, the U.S. must adhere to the five internationally accepted norms for reparations, inclusive of the requirements of: 1) Cessation and Guarantees of Non-Repetition, 2) Restitution, 3) Compensation, 4) Satisfaction, and 5) Rehabilitation.
In 2021, we are still waiting for lawmakers in Washington to pass HR-40, as the formerly scalding-hot R-word is now hip and mainstream. Moreover, as the result of over 30 years of legislative delay, the demand not only now includes the development of specific remedies, but also requests the incoming President sign an Executive Order for the Reparations Commission.
I wonder if what has recently happened will awaken them in some positive way, spur them into legislative or executive action.
Will the white racist terror those House and Senate members felt for just that one day bring them in touch with the reality of the racial violence Blacks have historically suffered?
When I heard newly-sworn in Rep. Cori Bush call Trump the “White-Supremacist-In-Chief” on the House floor last week, I was encouraged. I just wish African-centered psychiatrist Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, who advanced the phrase racism/white supremacy, could have lived to have heard that!
The terror had always been there; it was just the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that made it public, forcing the casket wide open. King’s 1961 statement about the activities of that “angry mob” outside that Alabama church he and the other Movement activists were trapped in shows the vulnerability ever present in real struggle. No, a church was not even safe back in those Freedom Rider days, as we saw with the four little girls in Birmingham two years later and what we have seen today in Washington, D.C., with the tearing down and burning of Black Lives Matter signs in front of historic churches just last month. That King sounds like he is talking about the Proud Boys shows the non-linear nature of our experience.
Because of this circle of understanding, we don’t have to reach back for King; he’s right here, at our side, where he’s always been, hoisted on our shoulders looking our adversaries in the eye, attempting to convert them before it’s too late. It’s why our celebrations of King are always about the present moment. It’s also why every program eventually gets to what Black people are owed — the check that King marked as “insufficient funds.” But let’s not get it twisted and get caught up with just a check.
The National African American Reparations Commission, on which I serve, asserts that “No amount of material resources or monetary compensation can ever be sufficient restitution for the spiritual, mental, cultural and physical damages inflicted on Africans by centuries of the MAAFA, the holocaust of enslavement and the institution of chattel slavery… which spanned generations to negatively affect the collective well being of Africans in America to this very moment.”
King’s struggles and sacrifices have never ceased to be current news, 53 years after his Poor People’s Campaign that was going to nonviolently stop business in Washington, was severely stymied by his assassination. He got shot in the neck for just thinking aloud about stopping business-as-usual in the nation’s capital, while those white supremacist-terrorists that succeeded almost two weeks ago were allowed to break in, threaten the lives of police and Congresspersons and their staff, and then turn around and prance out with impunity. The fact that more are being arrested as I write is good, but totally insufficient. They were not exercising freedom dreams, as was the moral intent of King’s campaign. Their designs were evil — and sanctioned by their kid-gloves treatment from the U.S. Capitol Police.
Although just as honorable, I come from a different tradition than the one King espoused. As someone who came of age during the Black Power movement, I have a different method, hold a different example — one that does not depend on America’s capacity to have a conscience. It calls into being Maya Angelou — not the inclusive poet of the Bill Clinton years, but the younger Africanist who scaled the gates of the United Nations after Congo President Patrice Lumumba was assassinated in 1961. It listens to Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who famously said a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home. It is the illustration of the Black Panther Party, who confronted white police abuse in self-defense while building community programs in the midst of an FBI governmental disrupt and destroy campaign. It is the example of the Republic of New Afrika, who had the audacity to demand a Black Nation in the belly of the beast.
It is difficult to pass on my tradition to a generation that has its own ideas. Many of the present activists’ ideas are excellent, but they seem to depend too much on the goodness of America to see and acknowledge their ideas. Whatever the country is going through now, this is not another educational opportunity, a la the Kerner Commission, a White House-requested study about the Black insurrections of 1967. If white racist, violent terror continues up to and past the inauguration, opining on MSNBC and in The New York Times will not be sufficient, the same way the House’s and Senate’s tepid apologies for slavery in 2008 were unsatisfactory.
In Jim Crow Mississippi, Mose Wright had to summon the courage in the courtroom that failed him that white terror night of his great-nephew’s kidnapping.
“Thar he,” he proclaimed, standing up and pointing to Bryant and Milam. Of course he could not stay in the state that night.
Willie Reed, a prosecution witness, also had to be run out of town when he likewise identified Till’s murderers in court: he escaped getting lynched, but not the nightmares, a nervous breakdown and a surname change from Reed to Louis so he couldn’t be easily tracked. I’m aware of people who have been on the run, who had to change their names, who went underground — do today’s activists understand that this is what it is really like to challenge American authority? If they don’t, they need to reassess what they actually want. After a presumed lifetime of cowering, Wright and Reed chose bravery and freedom, and their lives changed forever for the worse from the choice. Like many who stood all the way up in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, they were not only assassinated and imprisoned, but also un-fellowshipped, un-TV-anchored, un-booked, un-tenured and, ultimately, almost-completely unremembered.
There is no easy way to face the terror that now surrounds us as we finish a MLK weekend of Zooming social justice, peace, love and racial harmony while the National Guard is on high alert in order to assure that Biden and Harris live long enough to begin to lead us to calmer waters. I submit that our first move must be to explain to the world that reparations for Black people in America is necessary because that one afternoon and night of public terror the Capitol felt would have to be multiplied by tens of thousands of days to match the experiences we have historically and currently suffer.
But it’s our critical second move, filled with the traditional risk that is always inherent in any meaningful struggle, that is equally important. In preparation for defense, I will soon say a silent prayer to Shango, open my mind’s casket, take out the bloody kite within and, planting my feet in the field, metaphorically thrust it right in the path of today’s white storm cloud. And if Shango’s thunder and electricity should strike me, I will not say a magic word that turns me into a superhero, but I will definitely create a Black Lightning charge that will either startle our foes enough to either halt, or scare them into submission. I promise, I will be far from alone in that field. And as a nod to the Second Amendment, I’m sure some will have more than kites on their persons.
Nkechi Taifa is a human rights attorney and the author of the new memoir, Black Power, Black Lawyer: My Audacious Quest for Justice.