From ‘40 acres and a mule’ to LBJ to the 2020 election, a brief history of slavery reparation promises

Does the United States owe descendants of slaves reparations?

It’s a question being asked more frequently of Democrats running for the 2020 presidential nomination. Many have expressed varying degrees of support for reparations, giving the idea the greatest prominence it’s ever had among leading politicians.

Although the notion of compensating freed slaves has been around since at least the Civil War, providing reparations for their descendants has never really gained much traction in the United States, as I learned while researching my book “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed.”

Is anything different now?

Booker and Harris have both shown some support for reparations. Reuters/Mario Anzuoni

Reparations are rare

Historically, the term “reparations” dealt primarily with the indemnification of states ravaged by war, such as those required of the Germans by the Versailles Treaty after World War I.

In the aftermath of World War II, however, the term began to acquire a broader meaning, extending to compensation for those injured by the actions of a state.

Still, such compensation has happened only rarely.

Germany paid Holocaust survivors US$927 million – or $8.84 billion today – in compensation as part of the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, most of it going to the newly created state of Israel to defray the costs of resettlement.

Later, the U.S. offered “redress” to some 82,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” during World War II. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act granted a presidential apology and $20,000 to each living person who had been detained based on the recommendations of a commission created by Congress in 1980 to examine the causes of the “internment.”

But this payback was intended to be very limited. During the debate, then-Sen. Ernest Hollings worried, “Where do we draw the line against reparations to the countless other groups of Americans who have suffered because of actions of the U.S. government?”

And the law explicitly says compensation would only be provided to victims still alive in order to preclude reparations claims by the descendants of black slaves and others.

‘40 acres and a mule’

Efforts to avoid establishing a precedent for reparations arose in part because former slaves and their descendants have long sought some sort of compensation for their suffering under slavery and segregation. These efforts have achieved little.

W. E. B. Du Bois called for reparations. Addison N. Scurlock, CC BY
Perhaps the best-known measure intended to get blacks on their feet after the Civil War was General William Sherman’s promise of land and loaned mules to work it.

Yet after taking office in 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded efforts to distribute land to those who were freed. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois thus observed that “the vision of ‘forty acres and a mule’ … was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”

‘Freedom is not enough’

A century after the Civil War, however, President Lyndon Johnson hinted at the need for reparations when he pushed through civil rights legislation intended to make blacks full citizens.

During a speech at Howard University in 1965, he declared: “Freedom is not enough. … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.”

Although Johnson didn’t call explicitly for reparations, he urged something more than just equal rights for blacks – something that would rectify the economic disadvantage blacks faced. The speech has often been seen as a harbinger of affirmative action.