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The politics of myth, mistakes and misinformation in the Reparations Movement

Practical Politics

David L. Horne, PH.D. | 11/5/2020, midnight

The push toward a viable reparations solution in the United States continues and is picking up steam. Because it is an “it” thing in popular culture (there’s a new state law in California and pending congressional legislation), it has inevitably acquired numerous fictitious layers that, unaddressed, will discombobulate any serious attempts at reaching the necessary reparations solutions.

First, there’s the omnipresent myth—actually as the base of the whole movement in the U.S.—that there is a broken promise to provide former slaves “40 acres and a mule.” General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous Field Order 15 never made such a promise, nor, according to Sherman’s memoirs, did he ever intend it as such.

Much heat, agitation and anger have been dispensed in arguing this point with true believers. But the facts are clear: Sherman did not have the legal authority as military field commander, to grant ownership of the southern land he dispensed to eager Black supplicants in January, 1865. The 400,000 + acres out of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida that he distributed was land confiscated from rebellious southerners, yes, but the property ownership of that land could not be transferred by either a presidential decree nor an order from the officer-in-charge.

Sherman clearly stated that what he was ordering was “land possession” not land ownership, “until Congress shall regulate their title.” All land acquired by Special Field Order 15 would acquire “a possessory title in writing,” and Order 15 would provide “titles altogether as possessory.”

Before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln did not try to push Congress into legislating such land titles, and his successor, President Andrew Johnson, promptly ordered the legal removal of all Blacks who had settled on that land.

Secondly, there actually is a real Reparations Movement, with a specific starting date and organizational effort. This was an official start-up prior to the 20th century efforts of Marcus Garvey, Queen Mother Moore, or Congressman John Conyers. This was the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association (1897-1930), led by Callie G. House and Isaiah Dickerson. Mary Frances Berry’s history of that phase of the movement is outstanding (“My Face Is Black Is True”).

Thirdly, exactly who reparations should be for remains a sticking point. Some argue that whatever reparations solutions are finally accepted and distributed should only be to those who can prove descent from a slave in the U.S. or from a slave ship. This belies the point that reparations are to cover the Reconstruction Period, including tenant farming and sharecropping, massive discrimination against all Blacks in the U.S. to and through the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights legislation and beyond, from Black vagrancy laws to mass incarceration, etc.

Besides that, there were numerous free Black folk never enslaved in this country, but who were redlined and discriminated against nonetheless.

The push for reparations must also address whether any and all solutions must be financial. The most recent discussions (such as William Darity and Kirsten Mullen’s 2020 book, “From Here to Equality”) are adamant on that point, but that view is not universally shared.

Whatever reparations solutions turn out to be, who will be responsible for them? Only the federal government? Until the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, slavery was essentially a state issue in this country, and all states were not slave states.

The reparations issue in this country (and in others) is thus complicated and hard to pin down. Getting to a reasonable set of solutions—as the California Reparations Commission must do—will be an exhausting and exasperating task. But California’s leadership in this endeavor will surely be critical, given we are the first state to mandate such a process (although several cities have come up with a range of individual solutions)

Hold onto your hats, this may be a wild ride !!!

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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