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The U. S. government enacted the THIRTEENTH AMENDMENT to abolish slavery, but it has never formally apologized to African Americans for their enslavement nor offered financial reparations to compensate them for their peonage. Since the end of the U.S. CIVIL WAR there have been occasional calls by African Americans for reparations, but political and legal efforts have always failed. However, in the 1990s a new movement for slavery reparations began to coalesce, led by a group of scholars and lawyers. This group has been encouraged by the payment of reparations to Jewish Holocaust victims by German corporations that employed slave labor and by the U.S. government's payment of $60,000 to every Japanese American person held in detention camps during WORLD WAR II. Nevertheless, the slavery reparations issue arouses strong emotions in those opposed to the idea. In addition, legal doctrines make the prospect of court victories unlikely.

The idea of reparations is rooted in the field order issued by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman as he conquered several Southern states during the last months of the Civil War. Sherman's order authorized the distribution of 40 acres of Southern land to each freed slave and the loan of a government mule to work the land. The promise of "40 acres and a mule" proved illusory, however, as Congress failed to ratify such a program. In short order Southern whites reclaimed their land and Southern blacks became sharecroppers, renting out land in return for a meager financial return.

A reparations lawsuit against the U.S. TREASURY DEPARTMENT was dismissed in 1915, but in the 1920s MARCUS GARVEY made reparations part of his Black Nationalist program. In the 1950s and 1960s Elijah Muhammad, leader of the NATION OF ISLAM, preached black separatism and called on the government to give blacks land as reparations for slavery. During the CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT of the 1960s reparations were ignored, with leaders focusing on political and civil equality. However, by the late 1960s a new, more radical form of Black nationalism started to emphasize the need for economic justice. In 1969 James Forman issued a "Black Manifesto" that demanded $500 million as reparations "due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed, and persecuted." Again, reparations were ignored and the issue appeared dead. It was resurrected, however, in 1989 when Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a resolution that sought to establish a commission that would study reparations for African Americans. The resolution went nowhere, but Conyers has continued to introduce it every year, to no avail.

The modern debate over reparations began in earnest with the publication of Randall M. Robinson's bestseller, The Debt: What America Owes Blacks. Robinson argued that the value of slave labor over the course of 246 years of American slavery easily reached into the trillions of dollars. He noted that slaves picked and processed cotton, which fueled commerce and industry throughout the United States. Robinson called on the government to establish independent community trust funds that would distribute money into the community to fund black-owned businesses and to fund education and training programs. He disavowed the direct payment of reparations to individuals. Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree and other lawyers and scholars joined Robinson to form the Reparations Coordinating Committee. The committee has explored suing the U.S. government, and in 2002 it filed suit against several U.S. corporations that allegedly profited from slavery during the nineteenth century. A 2001 California law has aided the group's efforts, for it requires all insurance companies doing business in California to report on any policies issued to slave-holders prior to 1865. A number of prominent companies revealed in their 2002 filings that they had issued slave insurance and thereby profited from slavery.

The debate over reparations has divided along racial lines. A 2002 opinion poll found that 80 percent of African Americans endorsed a formal apology for slavery from the U.S. government and 67 percent were in favor of monetary reparations. This contrasted sharply with white respondents; 30 percent of whites supported an apology while only 4 percent thought that monetary compensation was appropriate. Opposition to reparations falls into three main arguments. First, opponents note that all former slaves are dead and that living descendants do not deserve payments for their ancestors' losses. This is quite different from the U.S. government's payments to living Japanese Americans for their detention during World War II. A second objection is more practical: who would get the money and how much would each person receive? Critics point out that some African Americans were not slaves before the Civil War and that other blacks immigrated to the United States since the ABOLITION of slavery. It would be exceedingly difficult to sort out the descendants of slaves. A third objection centers on making current white Americans liable for the sins of the past. Critics note that millions of people entered the United States from Europe, Asia, and South American between 1865 and today. These individuals, as well as the descendants of non-slaveholding Americans, should not be forced to pay their tax dollars to compensate for a reprehensible system they had nothing to do with. In addition, some African-American scholars have voiced concerns about the symbolic consequences of seeking reparations. They contend that this cause reinforces the role of blacks as victims and looks to the past rather than the future.

Proponents of reparations respond by arguing that financial compensation will not go to individuals, thus eliminating the practical difficulties of identifying claimants. They also contend that slavery, along with the 100 years of repression and discrimination following the Civil War, have directly injured African Americans living today. They point out that the U.S. government is an ongoing organization that is responsible for its actions, whether or not individuals were present at the time of the actions in question. Finally, they believe that while the money is important, the demand for restitution will encourage the healing of old wounds.

Most commentators believe that reparations will not be achieved through the legal system, due to many substantive and procedural doctrines. In Cato v. United States, 70 F.3d 1103 (9th Cir. 1995), a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit that sought reparations and an apology from the U.S. government. The court found that it had no jurisdiction to consider the case. First, private citizens cannot sue the federal government under the doctrine of SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY. Second, the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the suit because they could not show they were personally injured by slavery. The court made clear that generalized class-based grievances cannot be heard in a court of law. The court concluded that the plaintiffs should press their claims with Congress. Based on this ruling, many commentators have expressed skepticism that the 2002 lawsuit against several corporations would succeed. The companies will also be able to demonstrate that prior to the Civil War slavery was legal.


Horowitz, David. 2001. Uncivil Wars: The Controversy Over Reparations for Slavery. New York: Encounter.

Robinson, Randall W. 2000. The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. New York: Dutton.

——. 2000. The Reckoning: What Blacks Owe Each Other. New York: Dutton.

Winbush, Raymond. 2003. Should America Pay?: Slavery and the Raging Debate on Reparations. New York: Amistad.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Lemuel Shaw Biography to Special pleaSlavery - History, Amistad: Mutiny On A Slave Ship, Reparations, Contemporary Issues Surrounding Slavery, Further Readings