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Let’s talk about reparations for the families of lynching victims

Press clipping collage by Northeastern University

Writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and social justice icon Angela Davis will join a panel of civil rights leaders, scholars, and lawyers for a conference at Northeastern University on reparations for the descendants of lynching victims.

Hosted by the university’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and the Africana Studies Program, the virtual conference on Tuesday will bring together families of descendants with longstanding leaders of reparations movements in the United States, as well as racial justice activists and scholars. 

Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Coates and Davis will be among a lineup of speakers that includes Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern; Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; and artist Dread Scott.

Initiatives to redress the harms of slavery have been discussed for well over a century, whether in the form of financial recompense or formal apologies. But this conference takes place at a time when public officials across the country are making a renewed effort to repair past wrongs within their communities.

“There is a widespread racial reckoning occurring across our country in the wake of the George Floyd event,” says Burnham, who founded and directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern’s School of Law. “There’s increased sensitivity and increased appetite to learn about the history behind the George Floyd murder. And those of us who have been studying and organizing in this arena for a long time need to step up to the plate and inform that conversation.”

In 1964, Burnham was a young civil rights activist working in Mississippi, where three of her colleagues were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan. As a lawyer, she worked on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 2010 she headed a team that settled a federal lawsuit in which Mississippi law enforcement officials were accused of assisting Klansmen in the 1964 kidnapping, torture, and murder of two 19-year-old Black men, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. 

As part of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, Burnham and her volunteer team of Northeastern law students investigate acts of racial violence that took place in the South between 1930 and 1970. Over the past decade, they’ve discovered and investigated 500 cases, with as many as 1,500 hate crimes—many of which were not prosecuted in the Jim Crow era—remaining to be examined by her group. In recent years, the program’s work has gained national headlines, from The Boston Globe to The Washington Post.

In 2012, Northeastern law student Chelsea Schmitz was assigned to the cold-case murder of Rayfield Davis. The documentary by Northeastern Films, Murder In Mobile, tells the story of how she uncovered the details of his death in Mobile, Alabama at the hands of a white man who confessed and was spared prosecution.

The program on Nov. 17 will include testimony from families that have collaborated with the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project. It will also include a discussion about avenues for compensatory reparations and other forms of individual and community repair. Panelists will explore questions about why reparations should be paid to the families of lynching victims, what modes of redress look like, and who should be responsible for reparations.

“These are families who, unlike George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, never saw a day of justice for the crimes against their loved ones,” Burnham says. “These cases were, for the most part, never taken to court, and if in those rare occasions when they did see a courthouse, there were no favorable jury verdicts on the criminal side and certainly not on the civil side.”

Members of the descendant families participating in the conference include Evan Lewis, the great-grandson of Lent Shaw, who was lynched in Georgia in 1936. A founding leader of Urban Prep Academies, Lewis is now leading the formation of a descendant association. He’ll be joined by Thomas Moore, the brother of 1964 lynching victim Charles Eddie Moore, and Sheila Moss, granddaughter of Henry “Peg” Gilbert, a lynching victim from 1947. Addielee’s Kitchen founder Annie Whitlock—the daughter of Russell Charley, who was lynched in 1954—will also participate in the program.

Additional speakers include Ángel Nieves, professor of Africana studies, history, and humanities at Northeastern; Ron Daniels, president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and convener of the National African American Reparations Commission; William “Sandy” Darity, professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics at Duke University; Quanda Johnson, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Maxine Jones, professor of history and director of the women’s studies program at Florida State University; Joey Mogul, a movement lawyer and partner at the People’s Law Office who co-founded Chicago Torture Justice Memorials; and Nkechi Taifa, founder and principal at The Taifa Group

The conference is free and open to the public. It will take place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST. Registration is required. 

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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