In a historic move the U.S. House Judiciary Committee has voted narrowly to advance a reparations bill that will establish a commission to study the long-term impact of American slavery and consider making reparations to the descendants of slaves.
Democrats on the committee pushed to pass the legislation over the objection of Republicans by a vote of 25 to 17.
The bill will now go to the full House of Representatives and is on track for a vote in the coming weeks. However it will face strong opposition and is unlikely to get Republican votes.
The National African American Reparations Commission hailed the vote as “a major victory for proponents of reparations who have labored for decades to build mainstream support for redressing the lingering effects of enslavement on African Americans.”
The surge of interest in reparations comes amid a national reckoning over racial injustice highlighted by unrest over systemic racism and the deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers.
During the Judiciary Committee debate, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Lead Sponsor of HR-40, said the bill could help “confront the stark societal disparities occurring in the African American community today.”
The bill was introduced by Congressman John Conyers, who named it HR40 after the unfulfilled Civil War-era promise to give formerly enslaved African Americans “40 acres and a mule.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee D-Texas, said she is working to persuade her Republican colleagues to support the bill.
“The goal of this historical commission is to bring American society to the new reckoning with how our past affects the current conditions of African Americans and to make America a better place to help and truly study our disadvantages,” she said.
Dr. Ron Daniels, convener of the National African American Reparations Commission said he is proud of the role that the commission (NAARC) and the National Coalition for Reparations for Blacks in America (N’COBRA) played in “shaping this potentially transformational legislation.
“This is truly a milestone in the history of the multi-generational struggle for reparations.
“We commend Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee for brilliantly upholding the legacy of Congressman John Conyers, Jr. as the Lead Sponsor on HR-40”.
With the support of the National Coalition for Reparations for Blacks in America, Conyers, the longest serving member of the Congressional Black Caucus, first introduced HR-40 in 1989.
In its initial form it was a bill that proposed creating a Commission to study the issue of the enslavement of Africans and its consequences. He religiously re-introduced the bill in every successive Congress.
It was largely viewed as an effective educational and organizing tool by reparations advocates that seldom garnered more than 50 co-sponsors.
However, in 2015, NAARC and N’COBRA urged Congressman Conyers to change HR-40 to a bill that would offer remedies for enslavement and government sanctioned discriminatory policies and practices. Conyers agreed.
If passed, the current bill will establish a “Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans.”
Under the leadership of Jackson Lee, HR-40 has more than 180 Co-Sponsors, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
President Biden has also signaled that he is open to supporting a bill to study slavery.
While the struggle to achieve passage of HR-40 will intensify in the weeks ahead, reparations advocates were thrilled by the historic vote of the House Judiciary Committee:
“On Wednesday, April 14th, as I witnessed the historic vote of The House Judiciary Committee on HR 40, I was absolutely overwhelmed with jubilation, but my joy was tempered by memories of many who are no longer around to celebrate this breakthrough,” noted JoAnn Watson, a close ally of Congressman Conyers and a NAARC Commissioner.
“For many decades, I was mentored by ‘Reparations’ Ray Jenkins, Congressman John Conyers, Dr. Imari Obadele, Rev. Gaidi Obadele, and The Honorable Chokwe Lumumba, among other luminaries in the Reparations movement.
“So, I experienced unspeakable joy in observing the approval to create a commission to study the impact of enslavement and to develop proposals to remedy the torturous legacy of terrorism, tragedy and trauma that has persisted since 1619.”
Kamm Howard, Co-Chair of N’COBRA and a NAARC commissioner said:
“Yesterday, the proverbial can that had been kicked down the road for over 150 years was picked up by the House Judiciary Committee and is now being passed to the full House of Representatives for examination and action.
“The historic vote is a major step in moving us, and the nation toward a period in this country that is intentional in fully addressing the legacy, disparities and injuries of intense harms to our community in an effort to wipe them out in their entirety.”
Nkechi Taifa, a prominent Civil Rights Attorney who is also a NAARC Commissioner added:
“Reparations, unquestionably, is an issue whose time has come. I have waited 50 years for this day, and 32 years since HR- 40 was first introduced. I’m no longer a teenager, but an elder. It’s time for an official reckoning of the past and the healing that can come from a reparations settlement -- distinct from and not to be confused with ordinary public policy, to be fashioned in as many ways as necessary to equitably address the era of enslavement and its lingering injustices that manifest today.”
Reflecting on the week’s momentous events, Jeffrey Robinson, former Deputy Legal Director of ACLU and Founder of The Who We Are Project said:
“I am deeply honored to be working with so many incredible leaders and organizations that made the markup of HR-40 possible. The leadership of NAARC and Dr. Ron Daniels in convening and facilitating our HR-40 Strategy Group to navigate this process has been amazing.”