House panel credits Conyers for efforts on slavery reparations

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit

Washington — Democratic lawmakers are crediting former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. for his role in championing reparations for slavery after nearly 30 years of reintroducing legislation in Congress to study the issue.

A House Judiciary subcommittee held an at times emotional hearing on Conyer's former bill Wednesday on the Juneteenth commemoration of the emancipation of slaves in the South. It was the first hearing for the legislation since 2007.

Chairman Steve Cohen, D-Tennessee, gestured to Conyers' portrait in the committee room and said the Detroit Democrat is the individual most responsible for the measure, calling Conyers a "great American and great leader." 

Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who took over sponsorship of Conyers' bill after his 2017 resignation, said she had talked to the 90-year-old former lawmaker Tuesday. 

"John Conyers said to move on and to lead on, and for us to take this forward. Thank you, Congressman John Conyers, for all that you have done," said Jackson Lee, a Democrat.

"I just simply ask, why not and why not now? If not all of us, then who? God bless us as we pursue the final justice for those who lived in slavery for 250 years in the United States of America."

Proponents of reparations argued at the hearing that that racial disparities persist in society today due to systemic racial discrimination for which the country needs to atone.

The issue this year became a recurrent topic in the Democratic presidential primary campaign with at least a dozen high-profile candidates saying they would support the successor to Conyers’ bill and sign it if elected president. 

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signaled this week that the reparations bill likely won't be taken up in his Republican-controlled chamber. 

"I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea," McConnell told reporters Tuesday. 

"We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African-American president. I think we’re always a work in progress in this country, but no one currently alive was responsible for that." 

He added that it would be hard to figure out who to compensate for slavery. 

House GOP members at Wednesday's hearing also cast doubt on the legislation, which would create a congressional commission to authenticate the history of slavery in United States and seek consensus on what reparations should look like.

Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson, the panel's top Republican, called slavery a "regrettable and shameful portion of American history" but said the fair distribution of reparations would be "nearly impossible." 

Johnson also suggested that limiting a reparations program to one race would be unconstitutional, citing Supreme Court precedent. 

"Now listen, I get it. I've read the scholarship. I know that some proponents of this legislation believe that the very discussion of reparations itself would be cathartic for our nation," he said.

"But we have to ask if discussions can result in justice today and certainly —  probably — won't provide consensus. Instead, many people of good conscience believe they'll distract from the many persistent causes of current racial disparities." 

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat who has introduced a version of the reparations bill in the Senate, told the panel it is wrong to limit the issue to one American writing a check for another. 

"I feel a sense of anger where we are in the United States of America, where we have not had a direct conversation about a lot of the root causes of the inequities and the pain and the hurt manifested in economic disparities, manifested in health disparities, manifested in a criminal justice system that is indeed a form of new Jim Crow," said Booker, who is running for president. 

"We as a nation have not yet truly acknowledged and grappled with racism and white supremacy that has tainted this country's founding and continues to persist."

Wednesday's panel included actor and activist Danny Glover and the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who penned an influential 2014 essay on reparations for the Atlantic

Coates targeted McConnell by name, arguing that the injustices suffered by African Americans didn't end with slavery — compounded by Jim Crow laws, racist housing and education policies and the “institution in the American mind that black people are necessarily inferior.”

For 90 years after the Civil War, African Americans were subject to a "campaign of terror that extended well into the lifetime of Mitch McConnell," said Coates, a writer in residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University.

"It is tempting to divorce this modern campaign of terror, of plunder, from enslavement, but the logic of enslavement, of white supremacy, respects no such borders," Coates told the committee. 

"Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them," he added. 

"He was alive for the red lining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion. Victims of that plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they love a word with the majority leader." 

The Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the Episcopal bishop of Maryland, said reparations are not just about money but about making amends. His diocese last month voted to endorse reparations.

"As an African American who is a descendant of slaves who were never compensated, I can honestly say to all white people, we've forgiven you. ... But we are not reconciled. To reconcile means to put it back together again that which has been broken," Sutton said.

Many white plantation owners received reparations from the government in the form of compensation for the losses they incurred from the Civil War and the end of slavery, he noted.

"This nation, we know about reparations. It's just that it's never been done with those who deserve it the most," Sutton said. 

Coleman Hughes, a student at Columbia University and a columnist for Quillette, said the reparations legislation would be a "moral and political mistake." 

"Black people don't need another apology," said Hughes, who is African American.

"We need safer neighborhoods and better schools, need a less punitive criminal justice system. We need affordable health care. And none of these things can be achieved through reparations for slavery."

Reparations should be paid to black Americans like his grandparents who grew up under Jim Crow and were "directly harmed by second class citizenship," he said, adding that he opposes paying reparations to all descendants of slaves.

"The people who are owed for slavery are no longer here, and we are not entitled to collect on their debts," Hughes said.

"Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims, so the moment you give me reparations, you've made me into a victim without my consent."

Cohen shushed hecklers who booed Hughes' statement, urging respect for witnesses. "Chill, chill, chill chill. He's presumptive, but he still has a right to speak," Cohen said.

Burgess Owens, a Fox News contributor and retired National Football League player, said he's descended from a slave who escaped via the Underground Railroad. He opposes reparations but endorses restitution. 

“I used to be a Democrat until I did my history and found out the misery that that party brought to my race," Owens said, referring to the party's historical support for slavery before the Civil War and to black literacy rates in traditionally Democratic states.

"Let's pay restitution. How about the Democratic Party pay for all the misery brought to my race?" he added.

"And every white American, Republican or Democrat, that feels guilty because of your white skin, you just need to pony up also. That way we can get past these reparations and recognize that this country's given us greatness."

Later in the hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said Democrats included support for slavery in the party's platform for two decades before the Civil War, though the party's history section on its current website doesn't mention that or the Democratic presidents who owned slaves.

"It is important that we know our history, and we not punish people today for the sins of their predecessors in the Democratic Party," Gohmert said. 

"You lie," a spectator shouted from the audience. 

Gohmert chuckled and said, "I just stated all facts and, again, we have people who are denying history. That's not helpful to our discussion."