Civil Rights and Protests

African-American Protests of the Post-Civil Rights Movement

What are reparations?

Reparations are payments or other compensations made to a group of people who have been wronged or injured. The issue was in the news in the 1990s and early 2000s as lawmakers, academicians, and other leaders pressed for a redress for slavery, which some scholars called the American, or black, holocaust. The concept is not a twentieth-century phenomenon for African Americans. Near the end of the nineteenth century, Callie House (1861–1928), a former slave from Tennessee, emerged as a leader in the movement to petition the U.S. government for pensions and reparations for African Americans formally held in involuntary servitude. She also organized the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association to build a reparation movement among former slaves. The precedents for making reparations were several: The German government made reparations to survivors and families of victims of the Nazi holocaust. The American government also made reparations to Japanese Americans who had been interned during World War II (1939–1945), as well as to Native Americans, for damages done to them.

In 1989 U.S. representative John Conyers (D-Michigan) introduced a bill in Congress to “establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery” and “to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.” The idea of reparations gained some currency with the American public in the 1990s. Critics of reparations said that compensating the descendants of slaves was unrealistic; determining those who would be paid would alone constitute an expensive government program. They questioned why these descendants should be paid a century after the end of the brutal system, and that other programs, born of the Civil Rights Movement, have strived to bring equity to African Americans. Despite the criticisms, Conyers resolved to reintroduce the bill as often as necessary until Congress would act on it.


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