Starting in 1989, then-Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced H.R. 40, which calls for a commission to “Study and Develop Proposals for African Americans,” in every Congress. However, the bill has never gone beyond the committee stage.
Now that Conyers has retired from Congress amid a sexual harassment scandal, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) has become the bill’s sponsor, Port of Harlem magazine reports.
Jackson Lee told the publication, “This is an important initiative to study and understand how this country’s original sin, slavery and its vestiges, impacted and continues to impact African Americans a century after the civil war and decades after Jim Crow. This is a critical and necessary first step.”
As Conyers grew in stature to become “the Dean of the Congress,” he became a liability to his cause. In contrast to the seniority, senility and ineptitude of Conyers’ office in recent years, Jackson Lee has the credentials and swagger to make the reparations legislation happen in the coming Congress sessions.
Though H.R. 40 is just to “study slavery and its effects,” slave reparations are not a new concept. It dates back to the Civil War. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman first suggested that freed slaves each receive “40 acres and a mule.” President Andrew Johnson and the Congress rejected the idea.
America and its corporations benefited from slavery then and now. The Hartford Courant newspaper ran ads for the sale and capture of slaves. Aetna Insurance insured slaves as personal property. Banks such as Wells Fargo financed slavery and railroad companies used slave labor.
While Blacks hold Conyers in high esteem for introducing H.R. 40 in the Congress 30 years ago, the truth is that the venerable congressman and his people were asleep at the wheel for decades. The fact is: Blacks should deem it “unacceptable” that Conyers could not get H.R. 40 out of committee in the almost 30 years it languished there. The time is right for Jackson Lee to step forward and detail how she plans to help Blacks be “informed” “involved” and “inspired” on the debt and obligations America has with Black Americans. Some estimate the price tag to exceed $10 trillion.
Seventy percent of Americans, Whites and Blacks, say “no” to reparations. Sheila Jackson Lee has the expertise to make H.R. 40 happen. She is a former municipal judge who has been in Congress for over 20 years. She is serving her 11th term and is a senior member of the House Committees on the Judiciary.
A plus for Blacks and H.R. 40 is that she is ranked as the meanest member of Congress, meaning she can crack the whip on staffers doing “government work.”
As he got older, Conyers was rarely in his office. The less time he was in office, the less time staff members spent there. As a result, while Conyers went through the perfunctory exercise introducing H.R. 40, little was done in moving the bill through congressional committees.
Conyers and his staff operated on the self-fulfilling prophecy that it would never happen. There’s no disputing that Americans of African descent suffered centuries of enslavement. Finding ways to educate the community about this history is a multi-pronged part of the process. Shelia Jackson Lee knows her way around Congress. She has the clout and knowledge to get the votes and support to get H.R. 40 out of committee. Conyers and company were inept and lazy regarding H.R. 40. The Black public and activists must help and urge Jackson Lee to hold hearings on the need to study the effects of slavery and Jim Crow.
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America” and available for projects via Busxchng@his.com.