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.” 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.”
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. 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.” 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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.
 Michael Harrington, “Black Reparations—Two Views,” Dissent, July-August 1969, p. 317.
 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.”
 Harrington, 318.
 Arnold S. Kaufman, “Black Reparations—Two Views,” Dissent, July-August 1969, p. 319.
 Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, p. 71.
 “Incident at Riverside Church,” The Nation, May 19, 1968, Vol. 208, No. 20, p. 619.
 Bayard Rustin, “The Failure of Black Separatism,” Down The Line: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971, p. 303.
 John A. Morsell, “The NAACP and ‘Reparations’, The Crisis, March 1970, p. 93.
 Morsell, p. 95.
 Morsell, 101.