Getting Back on the Bus


The first step was in 1963, when Dr. Martin Luther King led Black America to this nation’s capital seeking to put an end to legal segregation. In 1995 they returned with Minister Louis Farrakhan for the controversial Million Man March, reaching out to generations of black males. Now they’re heading to Washington again, for the Millions for Reparations March on Saturday, determined to collect the unpaid wages of their forefathers held in bondage.

The message, according to flyers promoting the rally, is simply “You Owe Us!” Demanding the pay denied their ancestors is nothing new for blacks. Immediately upon winning their freedom, masses of ex-slaves began calling for restitution. Abraham Lincoln promised 40 acres and a mule to start them off, but his successor reneged, and from then on the task of seeking compensation has been passed from generation to generation—all to no avail.

Malcolm X once said: “If you are the son of a man who had a wealthy estate and you inherit your father’s estate, you have to pay off the debts that your father incurred before he died. The only reason that the present generation of white Americans are in a position of economic strength . . . is because their fathers worked our fathers for over 400 years with no pay. . . . We were sold from plantation to plantation like you sell a horse, or a cow, or a chicken, or a bushel of wheat. . . . All that money is what gives the present generation of American whites the ability to walk around the earth with their chest out . . . like they have some kind of economic ingenuity. Your father isn’t here to pay. My father isn’t here to collect. But I’m here to collect, and you’re here to pay.”

Departing from all corners of life, they will arrive together at a monumental point in their history. Some will ride with organized groups like Black United Front, the December 12th Movement, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Others will get there any way they can. By every means necessary, they’re going—the young, the old, the rich and poor, the many shades of black, each reflecting on life as a Negro in America and its relationship to the unpunished crime and legacy of slavery. It is a journey that will no doubt toss America’s haunting racial turmoil into the spotlight once again.

“Reparations is the defining issue of the 21st century,” says New York City Councilman Charles Barron. During his short time in office, Barron has enraged many by propelling minority issues to the forefront. In a city where polls indicate that 62 percent of black New Yorkers feel reparations are justified but only 22 percent of whites agree, Barron has been pushing a series of reparations resolutions and has held public hearings on the issue. “When we get on that bus, it’s to say to this nation that a crime has been committed, a people have been injured, and compensation is long overdue. We’re going there to make that proud statement, and to develop the strategy to make it a reality,” says the Brooklyn Democrat.

For many the ride to Washington will unleash a roller coaster of emotions; everything from pain and hurt to anger will flow down the highway. It’s about slavery, an old tune that White America is tired of hearing and Black America is tired of having to sing. Nevertheless, more than 4 million Africans and their descendants born in this country were enslaved in the United States and its colonies from 1619 to 1865, denied the right to pave a prosperous future for their offspring. Forbidden to learn, never compensated for their work. Held captive and suffocated for generations by beatings, rapes, and executions, and then released from bondage with nothing but the rags on their backs in a country hostile toward them. They set forth with nothing to offer their heirs but a future filled with unusually cruel obstacles and over a hundred years of institutionalized racism. Gathering this week on the Washington Mall, their descendants will stand up in their honor for all that was stolen.

“We had a rough life because of our color,” says Ruby Duke. At first glance it is easy to feel pity for Miss Ruby, who was born in segregated Atlanta in 1928. The 83-year-old has witnessed the best and worst of Negro life. Her body is tiny and frail, and the struggle of her years is etched in each wrinkle on her face. Yet here she is in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, getting ready to go to work. Each morning she fills her shopping cart with bottles and cans to recycle. “I have to hustle,” she says. “My pension doesn’t cut it, and no one is going to hire an old goat like me nohow.”

As with many seniors facing their last days, the possibility of blacks receiving reparations makes her eyes shine. “It’s always been easier to pretend that we created our own problems and that slavery was just a thing of the time that eventually ended. It would be nice to have white people admit the truth of our existence here.” The realities of that existence are hardly pretty. “My great-grandmother raised over 20 of us and picked cotton every day. Sometimes she was in so much pain that I had to rub her legs with Vaseline and stretch them. But when she died she had nothing to leave any of us.

“I moved to New York when I was 17 and I went to work cleaning the houses of white people for pennies so that I could take care of her. This country didn’t take care of her or any of the people it enslaved and oppressed. She wasn’t able to pass on anything that she worked for, never able to give us the best of anything, because she didn’t get anything. Severe damage was done to us and has never been taken seriously. This rally means a lot to us as a people.”

Earlier this year, a national ABC News poll revealed that 67 percent of whites believe black people are discriminated against, yet 62 percent of New Yorkers don’t think blacks are owed so much as an apology for slavery—the major argument being that no one alive today is affected by it and that blacks need to let it go. “It amazes me that white people are quick to say that we need to get over slavery and move on, yet they never tell themselves to stop the habitual discrimination against us as a people,” says Brooklyn educator and activist Michael Hooper. “When they really get over slavery, we’ll get over it, and we can all move on. The time for reparations is now.”

The issue of reparations has been called divisive by many who oppose it, but there are those in the community who have spent a lifetime fighting against the disparities they say have been created and sustained in an already divided nation. “There are two sides of justice in this country,” says Geraldine Pickett, a candidate for a Kings County judgeship. “There is one for the powers that be, and another for those that are disenfranchised—the poor, the black.” She points to a criminal system that’s stacked against black people. Sixty-two percent of blacks in prison are there for drug violations, compared with 36 percent of whites, although whites account for 75 percent of all drug users. “It’s more than necessary that we be in D.C.,” says the attorney who has spent most of her time fighting against such inequalities.

This nation has agreed to the idea of reparations before, just not for its own people. In 2000, officials from the U.S. joined Germany and other European states in signing an agreement to pay $5 billion in Holocaust reparations to Jewish slave laborers and their families. At the time, Secretary of State Madeline Albright said the deal was the first serious attempt to compensate “those whose labor was stolen or coerced during a time of outrage and shame. It is critical to completing the unfinished business of the old century before entering the new.” Blacks want to finish the business of slavery once and for all. “If they can get it, why can’t we?” argues Isis Sapp-Grant, executive director of Blossom, a community-based organization for adolescent girls. “We wouldn’t be in a situation where our people are still so far behind in terms of education, health, and our basic level of success if it wasn’t for slavery. This is the biggest fight of our lives. We should all participate.”

If America is true to its history, the fight for reparations will receive the same degree of resistance as the movements for emancipation and desegregation. It’s still not safe to be black. The FBI reports that 67 percent of hate crimes committed in this country are against blacks. It’s another fact compelling many to go to Washington.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if we could just be free to live our lives without harassment and oppression,” says 34-year-old Rafael Jenkins, a computer specialist. “But when you’re forced to swallow indignities such as police torture and killings, like with Diallo, Louima, and all the others around the country that are dismissed, it pisses you off. So if we have to march on Washington once again to force this country to recognize that we are 100 percent human beings, and not the ‘three-fifths of a man’ theory that put us in this situation in the first place, then let’s do it. We have to end the racist madness that has choked us for centuries.”