Tue 3 Mar, 2009
Tags: H.R. 40, Jim Crow, John Conyers, Racial discrimination, Reparations, Slavery, U.S. Congress
Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) has re-introduced H.R. 40, the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” for the 111th Congress.
This legislation is enthusiastically supported by several DeWolf family members who appear in Traces of the Trade, and Rep. Conyers prominently mentioned our documentary when he introduced the bill. He is also a long-time supporter of our work, having flown to Park City, Utah last year to appear at the film’s world premiere on Martin Luther King Day at the Sundance Film Festival.
In his remarks introducing H.R. 40, Rep. Conyers invoked Traces of the Trade as an illustration of our society’s continuing need to grapple with the sin of slavery. He also mentioned the Episcopal Church’s apology for slavery in October, which was brought about in part because of our advocacy at General Convention in 2006, which is shown in Traces of the Trade.
Conyers summarized the purpose of H.R. 40 in these words:
Attempts to eradicate today’s racial discrimination and disparities will be successful when we understand the past’s racial injustices and inequities. A commission can take us into this dark past and bring us into a brighter future.
H.R. 40 and related legislation
Rep. Conyers has introduced H.R. 40 in every Congress since 1989, making this the 20th anniversary of the bill. In the last Congress, however, there were several notable achievements related to this legislation, suggesting that substantial progress on the bill may be likely in this Congress.
In July, the House issued a formal apology for slavery and Jim Crow, and committed itself to “rectify the lingering consequences” of that history. The House and Senate also passed legislation in the last Congress to establish a commission to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.
Meanwhile, H.R. 40 was itself the subject of its first congressional hearing, with witnesses including Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School and Episcopal Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of Massachusetts. Rep. Conyers has indicated that he intends to hold further hearings in the future.
H.R. 40 has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which Rep. Conyers chairs, and has been referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.
The bill currently has three co-sponsors: Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
What H.R. 40 would do
H.R. 40 would establish a commission to examine the history of slavery and racial discrimination in the U.S. to the present day. The commission would consider the role of federal and state governments, as well as private citizens, in enabling and supporting slavery and discrimination, and would assess the legacy of this history for freed slaves and for their descendants today.
The commission would then be charged with recommending ways to educate the public about this history and its legacy, and to recommend “appropriate remedies” in light of these findings. In weighing potential remedies, the commission would be specifically required to consider a formal apology from the U.S. government “on behalf of the people of the United States,” and the possibility of “any form of compensation” for the descendants of slaves.
Within the next few days, I will put up a separate post with my own views on the various issues raised by H.R. 40: acknowledging the nation’s history of slavery and discrimination; issuing apologies for that history; and offering reparations, whether in the form of financial compensation or otherwise.
Conyers and the Bush era
As the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers is also leading the effort to create an independent commission with subpoena power to inquire into Bush administration policies related to interrogation, detention, surveillance and other practices of the “war on terror.”
This effort has received renewed prominence in recent days, following the release of a selection of discredited Bush-era legal opinions on the powers of the presidency and the revelation that the CIA destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes despite pending court cases.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue of an independent commission tomorrow. Both Leahy and Conyers have been pressing for such an inquiry, while President Obama has indicated that he is not eager to support such efforts to look into the recent past.