The current civil rights movement has reopened the discussion about reparations for American slavery:
“As protests continue to convulse cities across America, many wonder where we go from here. It’s impossible to know the future. But if efforts do not include meaningful reparations for African Americans, the omnipresent injustices we face will not be resolved.
“For a long time, the word ‘reparations’ was a non-starter, but it is finally losing its taboo. The movement to provide financial redress to African Americans for centuries of subjugation and racial terror was already growing last year. HR 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the legacy of slavery and develop reparations proposals to Congress, is enjoying a surge in support. Groundbreaking reparations legislation has been approved in Evanston, Ill. And a bill has been introduced in the California Assembly that would create a task force to study the impact of slavery and offer proposals for reparations for African-Americans in the state.
“The outpouring of anger in every corner of this country in recent days — more than 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in America — could finally put reparative justice within reach.”
The day after the above appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oprah Whitney ran a special that contained a segment on reparations. The day after that, the following appeared in the Washington Examiner:
“It was only a matter of time before ‘Justice for George Floyd’ became ‘And while we’re at it, here are a few other things we’d like you to take care of with no questions asked.’
“That’s invariably what happens when the media, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party get involved.
“What started out as an issue over excessive force used by police against minorities has quickly devolved into a jackpot for the social justice people who see oppression, grievance, and victimhood in every aspect of their lives.
“[Bringing up the topic of reparations for slavery] lost the attention of nearly every white person who might have been watching.”
Thus the issue was reframed as a political blasting cap.
We can do better.
In the past couple weeks, I’ve collected a research file on reparations of over two dozen pages of resources and citations that make the topic much larger than who’s for it and who’s against it, who would get paid how much and when and how, how the government would finance it, etc. Instead, my research pulls back to a wide shot that starts with economics and law but then encompasses everything from individual and institutional belief systems, religious and secular notions of morality and ethics, national and cultural identity and worldview, and a whole lot more. I found all of that in the 400 years of American history I never knew, including the history made in my own time. I suggest we start with the latter as a first step toward moving ourselves past polarization paralysis.
Coming of Age in the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement
My hometown was a rural community in the western plains of Minnesota, populated with Scandinavian Lutherans living on Homestead Act farms in family groups where the grandparents still spoke Norwegian. There were also enough German Catholics to support a parish with a K-8 school staffed by nuns. The rest of us – the minorities — were identified mostly by reference to the small Protestant churches where our parents took us on Sundays.
None of us had any reason to be racist, but we were, although we would have been surprised and insulted if somebody had pointed that out, which of course nobody did. Racial slurs were part of the vocabulary: my childhood friends tossed around the N-word as casually as they traded baseball cards, and talked about “putting them on the boat and shipping them back.” Nothing personal, that kind of talk was just… normal. I always felt ashamed to hear it. I didn’t know why. And you didn’t talk that way in my house. The N-word we used was “negro” – blacks weren’t called blacks yet.
In 1954, the year after I was born, the US Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that “separate but equal” violated the Constitution. A few years later – I was four, maybe — I saw a black man for the first time.
Our home was up the hill from the railroad tracks, and the “bums” who rode the rails sometimes camped in a ravine between the tracks and our house, and would come begging. I came downstairs to breakfast one morning to see my mother talking through the back screen door to a black man standing in the middle of our backyard, well away from the house. He wore a wrinkled white shirt and baggy gray trousers held up with suspenders, and was holding his hat with both hands at this chest, head slightly bowed. “I would be so very much obliged, ma’am,” he was saying. Mom turned away from the door and started frying eggs, making toast, and pouring coffee. Her face had that hard, determined look you didn’t cross. I asked who he was, and what he wanted. “He’s a bum,” she said, “and he’s hungry.” My own breakfast was going to wait, so I went up to my room to play. When I came back he was gone.
My dad had the International Harvester farm implements franchise, and now and then he won a sales contest that earned him a trip to a company function. One of those was in the South, with a stop to visit his dad, who had retired to Sarasota. Our family didn’t talk much at meals — mostly sat, ate, and left — but at “supper” (not “dinner” like the city people on TV) on his first night back home he sat looking stunned all the way through pie and ice cream and coffee as he described what he’d seen: a “No Colored” sign over a water fountain, a “Colored” entrance at a restaurant…. We were all stunned with him, that such things existed. We had no idea.
A few years later, LBJ’s Great Society brought Lady Bird Johnson to town for a ribbon-cutting commemoration of a renovation to Main Street. It’s only now that I wonder if a few benches, flower planters, and garish turquoise mushroom-shaped fiberglass shelters were what LBJ and the Congress had in mind when they passed a law promoting urban renewal. Schools closed for the parade, there were speeches and reporters from the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and we made the 6:00 o’clock news from the NBC affiliate we picked up with an antenna on the roof.
About then I started drawing pictures of black athletes on my tablet during recess — Lew Alcindor, Cassius Clay, Dr. J…. Kids would gather around to watch. One day one of them snorted, “Nigra,” and walked away. I liked the sound of the word. It wasn’t the usual N-word, and it seemed defiant somehow. I drew another picture of a Black Everyman with an afro, and wrote “Nigra” underneath it. I’ll bet I could still draw it today.
Middle school summers at the lake (you took refuge from the baking humidity at a “cottage at the lake”) were played out to a soundtrack liberally laced with Motown, and two weeks at Boy Scout camp brought letters from home with news of riots. Detroit was burning. L.A. was burning. “Ghetto” entered the national lexicon, and even Boy Scouts in the north woods knew where Watts was.
In high school, my girlfriend went with her Lutheran Youth Group to a civil rights event in the Twin Cities that included a speech from a local Black Panther leader. In those days you didn’t say the F-word even if you were telling a story about somebody who used it, but somehow she communicated that the speaker had used that word a whole lot. I wondered why.
In 1968, USA runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists on the medal podium, joined by silver medalist Peter Norman, a white Australian runner.
“As the American athletes raised their fists, the stadium hushed, then burst into racist sneers and angry insults. Smith and Carlos were rushed from the stadium, suspended by the U.S. team, and kicked out of the Olympic Village for turning their medal ceremony into a political statement. They went home to the United States, only to face serious backlash, including death threats.
“However, Carlos and Smith were both gradually re-accepted into the Olympic fold, and went on to careers in professional football before retiring. Norman, meanwhile, was punished severely by the Australian sports establishment. Though he qualified for the Olympic team over and over again, posting the fastest times by far in Australia, he was snubbed by the team in 1972. Rather than allow Norman to compete, the Australians did not send a sprinter at all.”
In 1971, six months before I graduated from high school, Sports Illustrated ran its “Black is Best” article.
“It is clear that the black community in the U.S. is not just contributing more than its share of participants to sport. It is contributing immensely more than its share of stars. Black athletes accounted for all eight Olympic records set by U.S. runners at Mexico City in 1968, which led a European coach to observe: ‘If not for the blacks, the U.S. team would finish somewhere behind Ecuador.’”
I was an athlete. Those events and stories meant a lot to me.
Off at college, my R.A. was black (no longer a negro), and two other black guys shared a room two doors down from mine. With them in my life, I felt like I had arrived. Kelly had a springy, athletic way of moving, a short afro and a ready smile. Miles was tall and stooped, had a giant afro, always seemed mad, and never spoke. I wondered why.
I became a Jesus Freak during a gap year, and a Lutheran youth pastor (he had long hair, wore a big wooden cross, and drank beer at Kenny’s Tavern) struck a blow for ecumenicism and invited me along as a counselor on a trip with his youth group to a conference in Houston. Our first day at the convention center, a procession of blacks in bright blue robes marched two-by-two through the crowd, dipping and bobbing, two steps forward one step back, singing and -chanting, “Y-E-S, oh yes, Y-E-S, oh yes….” We followed them to the Y.E.S. Soul Choir’s gospel music concert. That night’s general session featured Andre Crouch and the Disciples rocking the house. I had one of their records back home. My new life as a Jesus Freak didn’t get any better than this.
Back at school, I heard about the annual welcome picnic for black students and decided to go. I was the only white guy there, didn’t know anybody and couldn’t think of what to do, so I volunteered for the serving line. A black guy and girl from Houston joined the campus Christian fellowship that fall, and the three of us started a Bible study with their friends in Black House. That winter a movie came out about Corrie ten Boom – the Nazis sent her and her family to concentration camps for aiding Jews — and fifteen black urban kids and one white town kid piled into a couple college vans and drove to a nearby town for pizza and the movie. The silences that met our arrivals were… thunderous. Not hostile, not threatening, mostly just… pointed. We were something you didn’t see every day. We were the new normal, and it was taking some getting used to.
That spring, we brought my co-leader’s pastor up from her church in Houston. For three days I followed him around, sat next to him at meals and in small groups, watched him — tall, erect, muscular in tailored three-piece suits and gleaming white shirts with cufflinks — as he parted the waters of shabby tie-dyed holey-jeaned flower children, laying down the gospel in a voice that rumbled.
The more I go on, the more I could go on — the memories pour in, scenes from a decade far more turbulent than the worst flight you’ve ever been on, racing across my mind’s theater screen in a blurry fast forward, leaving behind the indelible feel of those times. Incredibly, the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the only one bringing radical cultural change, but only one of many in a Revolution that was everywhere. The times were as thick and pungent with change as the marijuana haze that filled the quad, filled the dorms. The world was changing, and we were changing it. No, we had changed it. One night I attended a guest lecture where a visiting astrophysicist described a new cosmological theory called the Big Bang — the entire universe blasted into existence from an inconceivably compressed pre-temporal mass. It made sense. We could relate. We were living our own Big Bang.
Deep Ignorance and Long Memories
Then it was the 1970’s, and the Revolution staggered along, still tripping but starting to come out of it, Soon every commercial had at least one black person in it, like that was normal. Okay, so maybe it was tokenism, but we didn’t care, it would be normal soon enough. With that attitude, we were making the same mistake every generation seems to make: we assumed we were the enlightened ones, we’d gotten it right in ways our parents hadn’t, and they would have to deal with life on our new terms, and our terms were that “prejudice” (it wasn’t called “racism” yet) was over. The Beast was dead. The stain of slavery had been expunged. Equality was fixed in place, a given, a reality solidly grounded.
Or so we thought.
The first Black History month was observed in 1970 at an iconic location – the Kent State campus, ground zero of our opposition to the Vietnam War. I heard about it, as I’ve heard about it annually for the past fifty years, but I’ve never participated, never attended because… well, why would I? There was no point in it: the new normal was that the races were now equal. We wouldn’t have a White History Month, so why a would we have a Black one?
Or so I thought.
I managed to hold those beliefs, that judgment of history, all the way into this century, even as the justice system carried out its policies of mass incarceration, even as the news increasingly included body cam and cell phone videos of the police beating and murdering black people.
The new Civil Rights Movement has finally awakened me to just how shockingly wrong and blind I was and have been. And not just me, but how wrong and blind many in my generation were and have been. We never grew up, remained children full of ourselves. We made false assumptions, stopped learning from the times that came after ours, and never bothered to learn from the times that came before our own. That level of misjudgment generated the deepest kind of ignorance – not merely a personal failure to know, but the shared ignorance of an entire generation, a massive communal failure to know that history is not a dead letter but an active force still alive in us, still powering us in hidden, subconscious ways, still shaping our attitudes, initiatives, and responses in ways we would vehemently deny if confronted with them, just as my hometown would have denied its racism back in the day. We soak up our history from our surroundings, breathe it in, are immersed in it… and we don’t even know it. That kind of ignorance and arrogance has enabled the systemic racism that today’s protests are now broadcasting to the world.
It seems fitting, then that my personal reckoning should begin with a century-old cultural memory that, until my research on this article, was part of my massive, hidden Black History file of stupefying ignorance. The 1921 Greenwood Massacre is a particularly pertinent place to begin writing about reparations: it was undeniably a major economic event, but it was also much, much more, and the long-suppressed memory of it has now found its way out, and into the streets.
The Greenwood Massacre
Photo: Tulsa Historical Society
We heard earlier from Damario Solomon Simmons, a civil rights attorney and adjunct professor of African and African American studies at the University of Oklahoma. He wrote this in his L.A. Times article cited earlier:
“The aversion to making amends for systemic racism is perhaps most evident in my hometown of Tulsa, Okla., which last week commemorated the 99th anniversary of the Greenwood massacre.
“On May 31, 1921, thousands of white Tulsans, 2,000 of whom were deputized by the police, stormed the Greenwood neighborhood, a community known as ‘Black Wall Street.’ In one day and night, the nation’s most prosperous black community was reduced to rubble. Hundreds were killed, and more than 10,000 black Tulsans were left injured, homeless and destitute.
“For decades, Greenwood managed to flourish despite racist Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma. In a matter of hours, millions of dollars in hard-fought wealth — property, homes, businesses, investments — burned to ashes. About 35 square blocks, including 1,200 homes and scores of businesses, were destroyed. Tulsa has not been the same since.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, wrote in 2014 what remains as the definitive piece on slavery reparations. There, he wrote this about the Greenwood Massacre:
“Something more than moral pressure calls America to reparations. We cannot escape our history. All of our solutions to the great problems of health care, education, housing, and economic inequality are troubled by what must go unspoken. ‘The reason black people are so far behind now is not because of now,’ Clyde Ross told me. ‘It’s because of then.’ In the early 2000s, Charles Ogletree went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet with the survivors of the 1921 race riot that had devastated ‘Black Wall Street.’ The past was not the past to them. ‘It was amazing seeing these black women and men who were crippled, blind, in wheelchairs,’ Ogletree told me. ‘I had no idea who they were and why they wanted to see me. They said, We want you to represent us in this lawsuit.’ ”
“A commission authorized by the Oklahoma legislature produced a report affirming that the riot, the knowledge of which had been suppressed for years, had happened. But the lawsuit ultimately failed, in 2004. Similar suits pushed against corporations such as Aetna (which insured slaves) and Lehman Brothers (whose co-founding partner owned them) also have thus far failed. These results are dispiriting, but the crime with which reparations activists charge the country implicates more than just a few towns or corporations. The crime indicts the American people themselves, at every level, and in nearly every configuration. A crime that implicates the entire American people deserves its hearing in the legislative body that represents them.
“John Conyers’s HR 40 is the vehicle for that hearing. No one can know what would come out of such a debate. Perhaps no number can fully capture the multi-century plunder of black people in America. Perhaps the number is so large that it can’t be imagined, let alone calculated and dispensed. But I believe that wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as—if not more than—the specific answers that might be produced. An America that asks what it owes its most vulnerable citizens is improved and humane. An America that looks away is ignoring not just the sins of the past but the sins of the present and the certain sins of the future. More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”
Bottom line: today’s Civil Rights Movement is asking me, asking us, to grow up to our own history.
More next time.
 Simmons, Damario Solomon, Reparations Are The Answer To Protesters’ Demands For Racial Justice, Los Angeles Times (June 8, 2020).
 Scarry, Eddie, George Floyd Protests Hijacked For Reparations And Other Pet Projects,, Washington Examiner (June 10, 2020).
 See A History of Hate Rock From Johnny Rebel to Dylann Roof, The Nation, June 23, 2015.
 Simmons, op cit.