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For years, politicians from both parties have treated HR 40 like the plague.

The bill to establish a commission to study the impact of the cruel institution of slavery was considered too politically explosive and almost suicidal for any mainstream liberal politician to take on as a cause. Known as the reparations bill, HR 40 has lingered in the House Judiciary Committee since its first introduction in 1989. At every session of Congress, it’s original sponsor, retired U.S. Rep John Conyers Jr., kept reintroducing it.

“I’m not giving up. Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight,” Conyers said in 2017 shortly before he resigned from Congress after facing allegations of sexual harassment.

The reparations bill and other legislation Conyers sponsored in Congress made him a major negotiator on the issues shaping black life in America.

The black progressive movement hailed him as an icon and an example of a politician who wasn’t afraid to push the the federal government to do more for oppressed communities.

I recall a civil rights conference several years back at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Detroit, where entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, an elder statesman of the civil rights movement, praised Conyers profusely for the courage to introduce the reparations bill.

A major part of Conyers’ legacy — his push for reparations — is shaping up to be a decider in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. 

It is gaining the support of candidates who, decades ago, would not entertain the idea of a compensation for centuries of black enslavement. 

Some have already flip-flopped on the issue and others are just pandering to a black constituency that would be key for any Democrat winning the White House next year. The issue is also gaining traction this year because it is the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown.

Yet, absent in all of the conversation about reparations and the presidential campaign is the man who forced the issue into the mainstream. Conyers, who will turn 90 on May 16, has been missing in talk about the issue as the Democratic candidates fall over each other about who can best articulate the meaning of reparations.

Take, for example, the sleek move this week by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a presidential hopeful from New Jersey, who introduced a bill in the Senate to study reparations.

“Since slavery in this country, we have had overt policies fueled by white supremacy and racism that have oppressed African Americans economically for generations,” Booker said in statement. “Many of our bedrock domestic politics that have ushered millions of Americans into the middle class have systematically excluded blacks through practices like GI Bill discrimination and redlining.”

Booker’s bill should be taken with a grain of salt because it appears  to be an opportunistic move by a candidate desperate to gain traction among black voters.

I don’t believe his bill represents a significant measure to compensate the descendants of slaves, but a largely symbolic gesture that would make him more acceptable to a presidential debate audience. After all, Booker didn’t seem to have primarily campaigned on reparations when he was running for the Senate.

If not for his political fall, Conyers’ backing of any presidential candidate in this season would have been highly sought. The candidates would have been jetting in and out of Detroit to meet and be seen with him.

Still, it’s to his credit that the candidates are talking about reparations now and moving the nation toward some meaningful dialogue around racial justice. 

That is why we should make a distinction between Conyers the man, who was flawed like everyone else, and the fair-minded spirit of Conyers which drove him to champion black rights by initiating bills like HR 40.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at 11:30 a.m. weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

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