Addressing the history of racial injustices towards African Americans has been the litmus test of U.S. reconciliation efforts (Campbell, 2009). However, over the past several decades, local, state and community actors have embarked on remediating U.S. historical wrongs to further racial reconciliation at the local level. Through political engagement and local community efforts, activists, civil rights lawyers, scholars and a representation of those who have experienced historical racial injustices have pushed against dominant practices and policymaking to correct historical accounts and acknowledge the rights of victims. Several explicit racial redress efforts have received national attention such as the case of Georgetown University (Swarns, 2016). In addition, there has been an increased investment and the potential for national reparations as noted by the 2020 Presidential campaigns and legislative advocacy for the creation of a reparation committee (Coates, 2019). However, despite the heightened attention to racial redress, most local efforts work in isolation and with little to no support.
In October of 2019, the Institute for the Study of Human Rights, Columbia University hosted a first of a kind convening on US local racial redress. Around thirty participants were purposefully selected to represent a cross-section of those working on explicit local redress efforts. Most significant to the success of the convening was the representation of those who had experienced historical racial injustices, who were championing justice initiatives within their communities. The purpose of the convening was to further explore explicit redress efforts and to better understand the development and implementation of U.S. policies and their justice potential. An overarching goal of the meeting was to foster a network to support local efforts and individuals addressing historical racial injustices.
Opening remarks were given by a member of the national movement for reparations and set the tone for the day with a discussion on the importance of forwarding U.S. racial recompense at the local and national level. This was followed by three live testimonies from Melisandre (Meli) Colombe, James “Darrell” Broach and Rita Mosely. Meli is a descendant of enslaved families sold in 1838 by the Society of Jesus to keep Georgetown University from financial insolvency. Darrell was the grandson of Samuel Mason Bacon, who was murdered by the Town Marshal, Stanton D. Coleman in Fayette, Mississippi en route to see his family at age 61. Rita was denied a public education within her own community, Prince Edward County, Virginia, from 1959-1964. The closing of public schools were a result of Virginia’s Massive Resistance policies as a way to deny Brown (1954) and the desegregation of schools. These testimonies illustrated the span of historical racial injustices that are being attended to at the local level. The stories by Meli, Darrell and Rita set a reverent tone for the convening that the work to be done must pay homage to their histories and again, emphasized the need to forward racial redress efforts.
Working groups initially explored what the concept of redress means. For some of the participants, redress meant working solely on the ground floor attending to atonement at the local level. For other participants, their focus was solely on reparations at the national level. Participants collectively explored what we mean by racial redress. One group conveyed, individuals agreed that redress must be a bottom-up practice and provide space for traditionally “silenced truths.” Members argued that redress developed as a form of restorative or transformative justice is an entirely new method of understanding justice itself.
Participants agreed that justice responses should vary according to the redress efforts. However, most organizations lack the capacity to assure the type of investment needed to provide “true” justice. Institutions at the convening cited organizational limitations due to funding and staffing.
Although the convening focused on an array of local racial redress efforts, members consistently shared that national reparations are in order. Members felt strongly that there is a need for the U.S. to recognize and remedy the historical racial injustices that have spanned over four hundred years. Various forms of reparations were explored. Reparations in the form of education was a recurring theme. Participants discussed the significant need to invest in K-12 public education and also at the post-secondary level in historically black colleges and universities. Memorials or public spaces were seen as an important space to provide voice to silenced narratives and to open pathways for other types of reconciliation. Key takeaways included a heightened awareness on the significant difficulties in forging local redress, continued discrepancies between racial repair as defined by those harmed and what was implemented. and a lack of funding support. Convening participants gained a deeper understanding of the widespread interest in and conviction to address historical racial injustices. Members made a commitment to stay connected and provide support to one another in their efforts to advance racial justice.
Justice and Equity Solutions
Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability Fellow ‘18