U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reparations Roundtable: A Brief Intellectual History of the Modern Reparations Debate

The month of July on the S-USIH blog promises to be an exciting time. This week sees a roundtable discussion of the already famous essay by The Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations.” Several of the bloggers here at USIH will provide different posts, based on their own interests as historians and scholars. Look for those as the week progresses, beginning with my own piece here that shall serve as a brief history of the idea of reparations for African Americans in American history. Next week will see the start of a roundtable on U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left, another one that I’m participating in and equally excited about.

Today I wish to begin the dialogue about reparations and American intellectual history by examining the beginnings of the modern debate, from the late 1960s. While any full scale history of reparations would be well-served beginning in the 19th century during and after the American Civil War, when questions about the status of recently freed people of African descent raged in Congress and across the victorious Union, today’s blog post starts with 1969 because that’s the origins of the modern debate. At the same time, it’s crucial that we remember the context of the early debate about reparations.

James Forman is recognized as beginning the debate over reparations, when he gave his “Black Manifesto” at Riverside Church on May 4, 1969. That manifesto included a demand for over 500 million dollars to be given from predominately white churches, as well as synagogues, to the Black community. Although the Manifesto itself had been drawn up over a week before, at a meeting of the National Black Economic Development Conference, or NBEDC, most people hadn’t heard of the reparations demand until Forman’s impromptu address at Riverside. The response to this demand by intellectuals, especially those on the Left, is what concerns my post for today.

In 1969, intellectuals were already grappling with several key issues: the War in Vietnam, the “end” of the Civil Rights Movement and the “beginning” of the Black Power struggle, and the decline of liberalism and the rise of New Right conservatism. Forman’s Manifesto came in the midst of debates about the meaning of “Black Power”, something which had perplexed intellectuals, black and white, since 1966. It also came, it must be remembered, after years of discussion about economic inequality lead by Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Harrington, Bobby Kennedy, and others. Thinking about the late 1960s as the tail end of that discussion, as well as debates about race in American society, adds a deeper understanding to just where the demands for reparations came from. While earlier proposals by King, Bayard Rustin, and A. Philip Randolph in the form of a “Freedom Budget for All Americans” attempted some economic redress, they weren’t quite the same as Forman’s demand for reparations. The big difference was that King and others were attempting to aid African Americans, but also wanted to help others who were economically distressed, such as poor whites.

Michael Harrington found the reparations proposal from Forman to be nothing more than a waste of time. “…Forman’s proposal, which seems so bold at first hearing, would not really change the lot of more than 20 million black Americans at all. And by focusing attention on an outlandish scheme, which would not work in the unlikely event that it were ever tried, there is a very real danger that political energy will be diverted from the real struggle.”[1] For Harrington, focusing on economic justice for all Americans was paramount, and any attempt at reparations for Black Americans would take away precious energy from that goal. He went further, linking Forman’s proposal to Huey Long’s “Share the Wealth” program of the 1930s. Harrington noted in both a desire to address issues of “outrageous, indefensible extremes of wealth and poverty in this society” by simply taking wealth and dividing it up amongst people. As Harrington argued, however, “The trouble with such proposals is that they do not provide much money to the people and leave the real sources of wealth untouched.”[2]

Harrington saw the proposal as going nowhere—and fast. But he worried that the proposal would “divert precious political energies from the actual struggle.” Instead, what was needed was Harrington’s continued call for full employment and “democratic and social control” of wealth in American society.[3] However, the other take in that issue of Dissent magazine requires some attention too. Arnold Kaufman’s take on the debate parallels Coates’ argument for reparations. To Kaufman, “the real political significance of Jim Forman’s move is that it elevates controversy about what was in any event happening slowly and grudgingly into a great debate concerning matters of basic moral principle.” He continued on, “Rather, the demand that the sons of slave-masters make restitution to the sons of slaves rests on the claim that the former enjoy great and undeserved benefits, the latter suffer grave and underserved disabilities, as a result of accidents of social inheritance directly connected to the existence of slavery.”[4] As Coates stated in his essay, “An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future.”[5] In other words, for both Kaufman and Coates, the reparations debate was about more than money. It was about finding new ways to reshape the debate amongst Americans about the plight of African Americans in the United States. But for Harrington, always attuned to issues of democratic socialism and the “left wing of the possible”, the idea of reparations represented a fundamental threat to doing more for all who struggled economically in the United States.

Other groups and individuals responded to the reparations idea. For many, it was simply too radical a notion. The Nation editorialized about the Forman demand at Riverside Church and dismissed it. “The basic concept is not without validity,” they argued, “but the notion that revolutionary action can obliterate all the injustices of history is phantasmal. Followed to its extreme, it can result only in a welter of claims and counterclaims which cannot possibly be satisfied.”[6] History, for The Nation’s editorial board, was in danger of becoming an unstable, far too heavy weight on the shoulders of those debating race in American society. Bayard Rustin also disagreed with the reparations idea, critical of both it and the Black radicals who supported it. He argued that it backfired in starting a debate about reparations, and instead only reflected the weakness of Forman and his supporters. “It is insulting to Negroes to offer them reparations for past generations of suffering, as if the balance of an irreparable past could be set straight with a handout,” he wrote.[7]

The NAACP found the idea preposterous, and said as much in their magazine The Crisis. “Our position was on of flat opposition, on both philosophic and strategic grounds, to what we have elsewhere described as ‘an illogical, diversionary and paltry way out for guilt-ridden whites anxious to avoid the really and sacrificial decisions they must make,’” wrote John A. Morsell.[8] For them, the debate about reparations took away from larger, more urgent debates about continuing society’s march towards full integration. As Morsell wrote, in behalf of the NAACP’s leadership, “Everyone who has taken a serious look knows that we will need to spend on the order of $25 billions of dollars per year (emphasis his) for at least ten years if this nation is to fulfill its obligation to its poor and its deprived minorities.”[9] Again, echoing Harrington, Morsell and the NAACP leadership saw the fight over reparations as a diversion from bigger issues gripping American society. This desire to, as Morsell put it, for African Americans “to be involved in the big decisions”, to “participate in the deliberations of the American body politic” was a response to both the NAACP’s goals in the late 1960s of fighting for integration, but also a rejection of Black Power separatism.[10] It’s also a reminder that, when considering Black intellectual and cultural history in the post-MLK time period, the clarion call for Black Power, while important, can’t be allowed to overshadow other political and ideological options African Americans debated in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

This is only a brief analysis of the start of the reparations debate in 1969-1970. But it’s a way for us to kick off the roundtable by considering the ideological tumult that provided the background for the debate. Questions of democratic socialism, fighting poverty, and integration versus separatism all colored the early debate on reparations. In the days to follow, even more will be discussed about the idea of reparations to African Americans, the responses to that debate by a wide cast of characters.

[1] Michael Harrington, “Black Reparations—Two Views,” Dissent, July-August 1969, p. 317.

[2] Harrington, 317. He goes on to cite Robert Heilbroner’s Limits of American Capitalism and the merits and dangers of dividing corporate profits versus corporate dividends among the American people. “If…one had divided the $70 billion (not $500 million) of corporate profits in the mid-sixties, it would have increased income by $1000 per person, a gain of 20-25 percent. If one simply distributed the dividends (and if the American economy were to continue on to the next year, a major share of those profits would have to go into new investment), the average gain would have been about $250 a year. And that would not even make a dent in existing poverty.”

[3] Harrington, 318.

[4] Arnold S. Kaufman, “Black Reparations—Two Views,” Dissent, July-August 1969, p. 319.

[5] Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, p. 71.

[6] “Incident at Riverside Church,” The Nation, May 19, 1968, Vol. 208, No. 20, p. 619.

[7] Bayard Rustin, “The Failure of Black Separatism,” Down The Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971, p. 303.

[8] John A. Morsell, “The NAACP and ‘Reparations’, The Crisis, March 1970, p. 93.

[9] Morsell, p. 95.

[10] Morsell, 101.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you for this post Robert. I write about Forman in the context of the embrace of secularism by Black Power era intellectuals, which he discusses in his autobiography, but was unaware of his role in the debate over reparations. I am looking forward to the remaining posts in this roundtable!

    • That makes a lot of sense–and definitely adds something to think about in regards to why he’d demand this money from churches. And I hope you enjoy the rest of the series! We have a great line up in coming days.

  2. Robert, thanks so much for your leadership on this roundtable, and for this wonderful essay.

    Some preliminary notes:

    I am amazed by Harrington’s lack of imagination in regard to Forman’s reparations demands–especially in light of Harrington’s background in Catholic social justice traditions.

    Forman’s demands were certainly not articulated as a “Beveridge Plan” for lifting poor African Americans out of poverty (although, today, reparations would certainly serve as a welcome Keynesian stimulus)–the call for reparations was clearly a “utopian demand” (similar, perhaps, to the way Kathi Weeks describes the Wages for Housework movement in Europe in the 1970s) that intended to raise consciousness and challenge the complicity of religious whites of conscience in perpetuating American racism.

    In other words, I think the reparations demand was articulated to a large degree at the level of the socially symbolic, which makes it weird that Harrington rejected it as falling short from a policy perspective (or it would be weird if this pattern had not just replicated itself in regard to Coates’s essay and the wonkish liberal intelligentsia).

    Of course, a great deal of cognitive dissonance must have attended any attempt (such as Harrington’s) to be a coherent leftist and write for Dissent in the late 1960s; the denunciation of Forman’s demand as an “outlandish scheme” (500 million was actually a rather modest sum, as compared with monthly Vietnam expenditures), and avant-la-lettre concern-trolling (“there is a very real danger that political energy will be diverted from the real struggle”) strike me as symptomatic, in a Freudian sens.

    Even more so are the Nation editorial and NAACP lines you cite: “but the notion that revolutionary action can obliterate all the injustices of history is phantasmal”; “an illogical, diversionary and paltry way out for guilt-ridden whites anxious to avoid the really and sacrificial decisions they must make.” Here, the Nation seemed to be conducting a dialogue with an entirely imaginary interlocutor, while the NAACP relocates the demand from a radical African American one to a projection of the guilt-ridden white neurotic (would that white neurotics were ever so guilt-ridden as to seriously support any politics of redistribution).

    In any event, Forman’s demands included all sorts of money for cultural enrichment, community-controlled banks, artistic projects, etc. Their seamless translation into an extortionate or impotent demand for monetary payment to individuals is very telling.

    Rustin’s rejection of reparations seems to reflect how tortured his position had become by the late 1960s, no? The labor establishment with which he was linked was fighting its own mutlifront war against Black Power, particularly in the auto factories… my guess is that this shaped his thinking about Forman’s demands rather than deep commitments to the idea that reparations were in some way an insulting “handout”? In other words, would the Rustin of 1965 have used that language (I don’t think he would have), and if not, what, precisely, changed?

    Sadly, many of these dynamics persist, today. It is common to hear that a radical project is “more about guilt than politics,” as if guilt is not a fundamental category of politics. It is common to hear a given demand rejected as “utopian” while a far more radical demand is insisted upon as a realistic alternative. And the tendency of critics of radical political projects to simply make up what it is they think their adversaries are asking for continues to cloud our ability to intelligently process options and possibilities.

    • Robert, thank you for this wonderful thought provoking post. I just want to second all the sentiments expressed in Kurt’s comment above. Accepting reparations as just – even without an actionable plan for realizing them – is a crucial step toward recognizing the injustice of slavery and continuing injustice of racism.

    • Wonderful piece! I’m so excited for all the posts.

      I wonder to what extent Harrington’s and Rustin’s comments indicate how their thoughts were still adjusting to the changed political conditions a few months after Nixon took office.
      Kurt, to your comment on Rustin, the failure to get any legislators to really push the Freedom Budget during the 89th Congress, was devastating. And then Nixon’s election really shook him and that whole political milieu as they tried to figure out what, as Robert notes, the ‘left wing of the possible’ was after Nov. 1968. If the Freedom Budget couldn’t fly, then what could?

      • The Nixon factor can’t be underestimated, and I’d add that the collapse of the Poor People’s Campaign was a factor too. Overall, it seems to me that there was a sudden end to discussions of poverty after the deaths of MLK and RFK in 1968–as though it suddenly fell off the table. Of course the story’s a bit more complicated, but the world Harrington, Rustin, and others are working in changed so drastically from 1965 until 1969.

      • Speaking of the transition to the Nixon years and splintering of the organized liberal-labor-left in the late ’60s, I’m curious how the reparations debate took shape in a period of heightened working-class militancy, especially the radical black industrial proletariat organized around DRUM in the auto plants?

  3. Thank you both for the comments, and they’re quite astute (of course, heh).

    To your point about why Forman was doing this, let me quote from the his “Black Manifesto”:

    “This demand for $500,000,000 is not an idle resolution or empty words. Fifteen dollars for every black brother and sister in the United States is only a beginning of the reparations due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted. Underneath all of this exploitation, the racism of this country has produced a psychological effect upon us that we are beginning to shake off. We are no longer afraid to demand our full rights as a people in this decadent society.” That’s from “The Black Manifesto,” printed in full in “Reparations for Slavery: A Reader”, edited by Ronald P. Salzberger and Mary C. Turck.

    Therefore, you’re both spot on that Forman’s trying to do something larger than simply get 15 bucks a person. And that’s the analysis that Kaufman and, later, Coates, are both going for–that a national dialogue about reparations would be about more than financial restitution. I suppose I feel some sympathy for folks like Harrington (coming from a democratic socialist background) and the NAACP leadership (coming from a moderate liberal background)–both are forced to deal with a Nixon-led federal government that’s already shown itself to be less amenable to arguments about the War on Poverty and full employment. And they both, along with Rustin, know that the media loves to cover the big attention grabbing moments, like Forman’s demand being made public at Riverside Church. In fact, “The Nation” editorial staff seemed to be as distraught over that as the actual demand itself!

    In summation, I think it’s all part of how intellectuals in the late 1960s who were, ostensibly, part of the “Left” were all trying to figure out how best to solve problems of race and poverty–and not rub different groups (such as poor whites, or white ethnics in big cities) the wrong way. I’m glad you guys all commented as well–I sense we’ll get plenty of excellent comments this week.

  4. Additional context for the Forman proposal includes the riots of the 1960’s, beginning in 1964 and culminating with the riots after MLKing’s assassination. LBJ had established the Kerner Commission in 1967 to analyze causes and make recommendations, but the resulting report in 1968 which warned: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” seemed too radical and its programmatic proposals were ignored.

    In the light of that failure, Forman’s proposal seems now IMHO to have been a search for an alternative. At that time the mainline churches represented by the NCC were still strong and wealthy, at least compared to current day churches, and they led white support for civil rights, so appealing to them made some sense.

    • Good points made here. Like you indicate, Forman’s proposal represents just one way in which discussions about race had changed during the 1960s. And I think the responses by Rustin, Harrington, and the NAACP also show how everyone was struggling to figure out what to do next.

  5. Kit: Wonderful question–it’s something I was thinking about this week as well. I didn’t see much in the original responses mentioning those labor movements, but I’d be surprised if none of them took up the mantle of reparations–or at the very least discussed the idea.

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