Michigan Democratic Black Caucus starts Detroit petition drive for reparations

Detroit Black Lives Matter protest of George Floyd's killing, May 29, 2020 | Ken Coleman

The Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) Black Caucus has launched a petition drive for reparations for African Americans — an issue debated for more than a century in America — to become a reality.

The caucus has started a Detroit initiative called “Yes on Fairness” to get the word out and has placed more than 500 volunteers on Motor City streets with petitions. 

The effort, if successful, would establish a committee to oversee the creation and development of a “Reparations Fund” to make recommendations for funding allocations “to address historical discrimination against the Black community in Detroit.”

June 13 is the deadline for the group to secure a minimum of 3,400 valid signatures from registered Detroit voters to get the initiative on the local November ballot.

MDP Black Caucus Chair Keith Williams believes that securing an affirmative vote in Detroit could be a springboard for a statewide discussion on the issue.

“Reparations are long overdue,” said Williams. “This is about respect. Money is one thing, but self-respect is another. We’re not looking for a handout, but a way up. Inequities for people of color have always had a crippling effect socially and economically, impacting us now and in generations to come.”

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History of reparations 

In 1865, William Sherman, a Union Army general during the Civil War, ordered that land confiscated from Confederate landowners be divided up into 40-acre portions and distributed to newly emancipated African-American families. 

After President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, however, the order was rescinded by new President Andrew Johnson.

For decades afterward, civil rights leaders, Black elected officials and others have debated whether and how the government should issue reparations for Black Americans who are the descendants of slaves. There’s been considerable opposition from right-wing leaders, although there’s never been a national policy. Williams pointed out that an Evanston, Ill., local government program has set aside $10 million for reparations payments. 

Meanwhile, in April the U.S. House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would set up a program to study how, and whether, reparations to Black citizens could be made, to atone for the nation’s history of slavery. It is a piece of legislation that the late John Conyers Jr., a long-time U.S. House Democrat from Detroit, began sponsoring in 1989. Conyers left Congress in 2017 and died in 2019.

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) backed the legislation both in 2019 and 2020. U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) also applauded the committee for backing H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. The Democratic-led committee moved the bill on a party-line 25-17 vote.

“It is past time for reparations for African Americans in the United States,” said Tlaib through a statement. “Slavery and the Jim Crow Era are dark, ugly chapters in this country’s history that continue to pervade every aspect of life today. We will not be able to fully root out hate, bigotry, and discrimination toward African Americans and undo economic, political, and social inequities until and unless we begin atoning for the sins of this country.”

The White House in February indicated that President Joe Biden, a Democrat, would support studying reparations for slavery. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, however, stopped short of saying Biden would sign H.R. 40.

Williams believes that reparations could either take the form of cash payment or land ownership.

There is national precedent. In 1988, the U.S. government issued $20,000 in monetary redress accompanied by a letter of apology to Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. More than 80,000 people benefited from the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

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Detroiters weigh in

An April poll of Detroit voters commissioned by the caucus indicated that 67% of voters said that city government should consider supporting reparations for its Black residents; 51% of Detroit voters favored reparations for Black residents’ “past harm,” with another 16% leaning in support of it once their questions were answered.  

Moreover, 42% of white voters said the city should consider supporting reparations, 43% said no. Another 10% said they might support the issue once they have more information and 5% were undecided.

Among Black voters, 53% were in favor and 17% were against. Another 20% said they might vote yes with more information and 10% were undecided. The poll also found that 22% of Detroiters opposed reparations and 11% were undecided. It was conducted by the Lansing-based consulting firm Target Insyght and involved 400 active voters, 20% of whom were white. Detroit’s population is 79% African American.

Williams said that given the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, the time is now for reparations.  

“The statistics speak for themselves,” he said. “The unfairness is blatant, and people are starting to pay closer attention to the injustices we face every day. The structure of inequities has corroded our communities.”

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.