The legacy of the institution of slavery—and of racial injustice that continues to this day—amounts to more than just violence, said author Ta-Nehisi Coates. Lurking behind systems from enslavement to segregation, from redlining to police violence, is a “brutal logic” from which the “lives and families of African Americans are subject to the acquisition by people to enrich themselves.”
In this light, reparations for the descendants of people subjected to this violence—families that have been shut out of the opportunity to build generational wealth—“is not a solution, not a possible solution, it really is the only solution there is. It may not be sufficient in and of itself, but it’s essential,” Coates said Tuesday, during a daylong conference hosted by Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and the Africana Studies Program titled, “Lynching: Reparations as Restorative Justice.”
The conference convened people whose family members had been lynched alongside leaders including Coates, activist Angela Y. Davis, artists Dread Scott and Quanda Johnson, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, and others, for an in-depth conversation about the entrenched trauma of race-based violence as well as the solutions that come next.
“We might characterize this current conjuncture as a moment when the past has finally caught up with the present,” said Davis. “The lynchings of the past are continuously affecting us in the present.”
In a series of interviews that made real Davis’s description, family members of Black people who were victims of lynch mobs and other violence each described the real-life trauma of such history.
Evan Lewis, an activist and one of the co-hosts of Tuesday’s conference, is also the great-grandson of Lent Shaw, a man who was lynched in Georgia in 1936.
“I can’t remember a time in my life when I was not aware of the lynching,” Lewis said. “Now, when I see George Floyd or Breonna Taylor, I see an extension of Lent Shaw; it helps me contextualize this violence,” he said, referring to two Black people who were killed by police this year.
Students and faculty at the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project had helped uncover details about Shaw’s death, and about the lives and deaths of other relatives of people who spoke at the conference.
Sheila Moss is the granddaughter of Henry “Peg” Gilbert, who was lynched in Georgia in 1947. Annie Whitlock is the daughter of Russell Charley, who was lynched in Alabama in 1954. Thomas Moore is the brother of Charles Moore, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1964.
Each told stories of the trauma that reverberated through their families and spanned generations; the pain that still lives on.
“What we heard today is an enormously rich collection of remarks, and we learned a lot of history from Florida to California, and up and down both coasts,” said Margaret Burnham, founder and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, and university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. “We’ve provided lots of food for thought for those who will be carrying this question forward into the future.”
Burnham was one of the co-hosts of the conference on Tuesday. Nicole Aljoe, director of the Africana Studies Program and associate professor of English and Africana studies, was another.
The idea of reparations is not new—in the 1950s, the German government paid more than $800 million to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and in the late 1980s, the U.S. government paid restitution to Japanese Americans who were held at internment camps during World War II.
And yet, a bill to study and develop reparations proposals for Black people in the U.S. has stalled for decades in Congress. Jackson Lee said she wants to change that.
Jackson Lee sponsored the bill, also known as H.R. 40, in 2019, after the death of its author and longtime sponsor, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, Jr.
“H.R. 40 is a recognition of the international law of repair,” Jackson Lee said. “Repair for the gross brutality of life as a slave, and for the descendants of enslaved Africans. I am a legislator, and as such, I want this commission to be in place so all views can be part of developing proposals to be utilized in mercy to our people. I believe as this happens, America will be made better.”