COMMENT: Reparations Rising starring Robin Rue Simmons

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By Julianne Malveaux, NNPA Newswire Contributor

The Honorable John Conyers, who represented Detroit in Congress from 1965 to 2017, introduced HR 40 in every session of Congress beginning in 1989. He worked for almost thirty years to find co-sponsors for the legislation, but not even the entire black congressional committee would be co-sponsors. After retiring from Congress, he passed the baton to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston. Thanks to their efforts and those of reparations organizations, including the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC) and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), the number of supporters is approaching two hundred members of Congress. At 218, the law could be passed in Congress.

Full Disclosure. I serve as NAARC Commissioner, as does Kamm Howard, Co-Chair of N’COBRA.

With a Senate dominated by conservative Democrats and obstructionist Republicans, HR 40 is unlikely to pass the Senate if passed in Congress. However, it is important to recognize the tremendous progress that the reparations movement has made since Conyers introduced HR 40. If you then mention reparations in some circles, including those dominated by African Americans, you would be met with an eye roll and a “reality check”. Movements don’t happen overnight, however, and the reparations movement is growing thanks to the tireless work of dedicated activists who are persistent on the issue have picked up.

Robin Rue Simmons, a former alderman in Evanston, Illinois, directed that city’s reparations legislation and helped develop a program that will use proceeds from legal cannabis sales to fund reparations. The program emerged from documenting the way local legislatures widened the wealth gap between 1919 and 1969, and specifically targets Evanston residents and their descendants for the first round of reparations. Over the next few weeks, 16 families will receive checks for $25,000 to pay down a home, reduce a mortgage balance or make repairs that will increase the value of their homes. While these modest payments do very little to narrow the wealth gap, they improve the wealth position of these families. Evanston has taken a small but revolutionary step in the right direction.

Robin chose not to run for re-election, though she likely would have met only token opposition if she did. Instead, she works full-time on local reparations issues and founded First Repair (firstrepair.org), an organization focused on helping state and local governments shape reparations initiatives. Most recently (December 9-11), First Repair hosted a symposium (jointly with NAARC) with state and local reparations leaders. Sixty people from twenty-five cities, including Boston, Asheville, North Carolina, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco, came together to discuss their efforts to implement local reparations. Activist Danny Glover spoke at a town hall meeting that included a telephone address from Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee.

That so many cities and states are considering redress initiatives and setting up redress commissions is invigorating and encouraging. As Robin Rue Simmons said, change is bottom-up, not top-down. As more cities and states engage in talks about redress, leaders are becoming more aware that this is an issue that is not going away. Our nation is guilty of exploiting enslaved people and their descendants. We got little more than a tepid apology. Our country must do more.

While HR 40 calls for the establishment of a commission to make reparations proposals, if President Biden really wanted our backs, as he so often says, then executive order could establish such a commission now. I had hoped that President Obama would have done so, but this issue was such a hot topic for our then President that he wouldn’t even consider it. The more talk about reparations, the more information is disseminated. President Biden, Vice President Harris, can you take this step in the right direction?

In the meantime, I’ll pick up Robin Rue Simmons, a 45-year-old leader, activist, and tireless advocate of redress. She has dedicated her life to the reparations movement and has used the Evanston experience as a blueprint for other communities considering reparations. It’s important to note that redress isn’t just a check. It’s about healing, restoring, reclaiming what was taken from the descendants of enslaved people. It’s not just about enslavement. It is about laws that were passed after emancipation that systematically deprived us of our rights, our jobs, our value and our wealth. Thanks to the likes of Robin Rue Simmons (also NAARC Commissioner), Kamm Howard, Dr. Ron Daniels, Sheila Jackson Lee, Danny Glover and so many others, the redemption movement is growing!

dr Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author, and Dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA. She can be reached at Juliannemalveaux.com

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