For the first time in more than a decade, members of Congress examined the topic of reparations for African Americans over slavery at a hearing on a measure proposing a study on the issue from U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston.
In her opening remarks to a packed committee room Wednesday, Jackson Lee said her measure would be “long overdue,” adding that “slavery has never received an apology.”
“The role of the federal government in supporting the institution of slavery and subsequent discrimination directed against blacks is an injustice that must be formally acknowledged and addressed,” she said.
Her bill calls for a commission to “study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans,” and consider a national apology by the government “for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants.”
Though her measure received a warm reception from many civil rights advocates and black Americans, it will be a tougher sell in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this week, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, dismissed reparations for slavery as not “a good idea,” and said that it would “be pretty hard to figure out who to compensate.”
Still, the hearing by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on House Resolution 40 — named for the unfulfilled federal promise to provide freed African-Americans “40 acres and a mule” — marked the first opportunity in more than a decade that House members were able to tackle the issue with witnesses that included actor and activist Danny Glover; writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential candidate; and retired NFL player Burgess Owens.
During his testimony, Coates rebuked McConnell for his earlier comments on reparations noting that, “for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror.” That campaign, Coates added, “extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”
Wednesday’s hearing fell on Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865, but also comes amid a larger discussion nationally on reparations among 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.
Booker told the House panel that the nation has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding.” The two Texans in the race — Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro — have both previously said they backed Jackson Lee’s reparations proposal.
Aside from Jackson Lee, three other Texans on the committee — Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Democratic U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Veronica Escobar of El Paso— were part of a bevy of lawmakers who peppered witnesses with questions about the potential benefits and shortfalls of her proposal.
Escobar and Garcia, who both arrived in Congress this year, asked panelists to respond to critics who argue the country has already addressed reparations through policies like affirmative action or dismiss the idea of reparations as little more than just writing out checks to black Americans.
Gohmert, meanwhile, noted that Democrats, not Republicans, were the party who played a role in introducing Jim Crow laws, and that they were the party who historically supported the institution of slavery.
“It is important that we know our history, and we not punish people today for the sins of their predecessors in the Democratic Party,” he said.
“You lie,” a protestor in the audience shouted back.
“I just stated all facts, and again, we have people who are denying history,” Gohmert responded. “That’s not helpful to our discussion.”