OF TERROR AND PROMISE

Photo Credit: Rodney Ladson
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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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