Segment from Paying for the Past

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Nathan Connolly: Ed, Brian, I want you all to consider just for a second the big, long history of reparations and really how diverse different reparations claims are. It might surprise us to hear the following clip from one of our most decorated 20th century civil rights activists.

Martin Luther K: At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they build land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms.

Martin Luther K: Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they’re the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we’re faced with and this is the reality. Now when we come to Washington in this campaign, we’re coming to get our check.

Nathan Connolly: So that was 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s last formal political action as part of the poor people’s campaign.

Ed Ayers: One of the things that’s so powerful about the King quote is how much he reminds us that it is about repair, that mistakes or blindnesses at the beginning made it seem invisible, out of sight when the Homestead Act, it doesn’t feel racialized to white people when they’re doing that. But now anything that’s making amends for those blindnesses has to sound like repair rather than something positive. It’s the language itself, in some ways, is pulling against the sense of justice that King was talking about.

Ed Ayers: You have to point out that there’s no reparation without understanding what was damaged. So it’s not merely labor that was lost, wealth that was not accrued, but acts of the government that actively undercut African American efforts at economic improvement. I think one way to think about this is that rather than making reparations just about all of the past, let’s make it the government addressing things that the government had done in an earlier time. It seems to me that that would focus the debate in a way that people would have a clearer sense of just exactly what was at stake.

Nathan Connolly: The line that I think was really just galvanizing for me was when you had the founder of the Rosewood Foundation, Lizzie Jenkins, talking about it not being about compensation but recognition. In some ways, and this not in any way to foreclose a discussion of financial payments or compensation, but I do think there is something to be said about the need to at least begin a discussion that acknowledges that there was an immoral act that claimed people’s lives, foreclosed futures, snatched land when they acquired it. I mean there’s a lot that can be done just at the level at re-narrating in a public facing way the history of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow that simply has not happened.

Brian Balogh: I absolutely agree with you on that, Nathan, but I would also add what I consider to be the other half of the obstacle which is paying reparations kind of acknowledges that we haven’t closed the gap, that we haven’t made up for that history that you just referred to. The willingness to acknowledge the disadvantage that millions of Americans face today because of acts in the past is the other half of the calculation that, in my opinion, leads people to resist reparations.

Brian Balogh: Now, I disagree with that position. But I think we have to confront both the history and the acknowledgment that that history has produced the kinds of inequalities we face today before we can really effectively expect to win a reparations debate.

Ed Ayers: Part of this too is that this is not just one big sin, but it’s a series of telescoping sins. You think about the Georgetown 272 effort and what they’re directing that money toward are the communities in Louisiana where the descendants lived for so long, doing things like providing eyeglasses for the people there who otherwise wouldn’t have them. If you think about this immoral set of acts unfolded across the entire landscape of the United States and across the entire expanse of American history, it’s almost as if we need to take it apart before we can name each particular part of immorality.

Ed Ayers: I think the people in the 20th century can look at housing markets and realize that was across the entire United States. They can look at school segregation. But then a large part of the nation’s history was embedded in the South, not only slavery, but then the century of segregation with the sanction of the state is also uniquely Southern. In some ways you think about to whom should reparation be paid. It’s interesting for me to think about the Georgetown example, that they are paying it not only to individuals but to the communities where those individuals lived and where their disadvantages were made manifest.

Ed Ayers: In some ways, to understand the problem it’s as if we had to take it apart. Again, I thought that was what was so powerful about King is he was taking apart and talking about very specific things that people did. I think maybe that might be a way for people to comprehend exactly what the repairs are for and to.

Nathan Connolly: Yeah. I would agree. I mean it’s impossible to compensate a family that was broken apart by the internal slave trade. How do you compensate? How do you turn that into a dollar amount? How do you even talk about the hundreds of thousands of people who were, say, killed under terrorism as white were reclaiming the South after the end of Reconstruction? These are absolutely incalculable sums. Now, I do appreciate someone like Professor Darity who is trying to take, say, the 40 acres and a mule, give it a certain interest rate, flash forward and say, “Let’s come up with some kind of dollar amount.”

Nathan Connolly: But I do think, as with any form of financial compensation, that it’s largely going to be symbolic. I do think that the symbolism is something that we have a very hard time wrestling with and grappling with. I wonder if one of the things about this moment now relative to electoral politics is actually about that symbolism. We know how political parties have used, for instance, the idea of the NASCAR dad or the silent majority or the welfare queen. I mean people speak in symbolic terms all the time when they’re trying to mobilize different parts of the electorate.

Nathan Connolly: I wonder if one of the challenges here is that you almost have in your mind a kind of thin or vague image of the Black family that is simply going to get “the check in the mail” and that is not something that everybody can really get behind. It’s not a rallying cry or a symbol that really helps to animate people in a 2020 or 2024 or what have you.

Brian Balogh: Nathan, I certainly hope that we’re not going to have to choose between getting the history right and financial compensation. I hope that we can have both of them together. But I’d love for you to elaborate on the genuine concern that sometimes stroking a check can make it seem like we’ve resolved the whole problem and we don’t really have to talk about it any more.

Nathan Connolly: Yeah. I mean this is not even an abstract or philosophical debate. I mean when you look at the politics of the 1980s and ’90s when people were asking for affirmative action, and it should be said for the record that affirmative action is in many ways an effort to redress history when it was first conceptualized. The opponents of affirmative action would say things like, “You guys got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. You have nothing left to say. You have no other claims to make. There’s no other argument one can make about inequality.” I mean it literally was an argument about telling people to stay quiet because they got something from the government in major legislation.

Nathan Connolly: I have to imagine that anything that would be formally identified in a very ominous way as reparations would have, as one of the consequences, this same assumption that if you get something from us by way of redress or compensation, that then means in return we get your silence about the history, about further claims in the present day. That’s always a very dangerous proposition to find oneself in because I think one of the most powerful relationships that African Americans have to the country is a claim on its history, is a claim to the founding, is a claim to the prosperity. It’s a claim to the workings and the evolution of democracy, certainly cultural claims and political claims and economic claims all bound up together.

Nathan Connolly: There’s a way in which I think people would be much more inclined if they could get some guarantee that Black folk would be quiet about the past in ways that don’t fit a mainstream vision, that they would be very much inclined to just give a kind of token gesture and call it reparations in the meantime.

Brian Balogh: So in that regard, it would look almost like a private legal settlement with nondisclosure act included.

Nathan Connolly: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don’t know of anybody who’s willing to sign onto something like that. I also want to say too, I mean this is something that I think Ed had mentioned that the housing issue in the 20th century … and it’s easier for that than maybe the slavery issue of the 19th century. But I do think there is ways that we could absolutely reverse engineer some of the most discriminatory practices of the 20th century and just simply say, “Look, we’re going to concentrate resources in areas that are concentrated African American poverty and institutions that have historically moved against admitting people of African Americans into their educational institutions or employment institutions and the like.”

Nathan Connolly: There are ways where we can concentrate and think through mass incarceration, evictions. I mean all of these inequalities are so concentrated and identifiable, public health outcomes. I mean you can give increased spending to areas that are suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure. Again, poverty and race certainly correlate, but there are ways to think about isolating the variables of race geographically that could be part of a reparations policy. But again, it would require a level of intentionality that would also then require building and moving the political apparatus through Congress necessarily to get it to do that.

Ed Ayers: As a historian, I have to be heartened by the fact that history doesn’t really fade away in its significance. The things that we’re talking about are not the things that are just most approximate to us in time, but things that are most foundational, slavery, Reconstruction, segregation. Those things are not just going to fade away with the passage of time it appears. Instead, they come back in new guises. So those of us who think about the past for a living have to be perversely encouraged that people are going to need to know the details. It actually mattered what 40 acres and a mule actually was. What did it mean for us to be able to have these conversations?

Ed Ayers: It just shows us that there’s always going to be the need for us to have a clearer eye to understanding of the history that got us to this place. That history in this case runs way back in American history.

Brian Balogh: That’s going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You’ll find us at Or send an email to We’re also on Facebook and Twitter @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

Brian Balogh: Special thanks this week to the Johns Hopkins Studios in Baltimore.

Nathan Connolly: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Nathan Connolly: Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

Speaker 12: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.

Speaker 12: BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.

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Paying for the Past Lesson Set

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Though the American Civil War concluded over 150 years ago, its effects still resonate in the social, economic, and political lives of millions of Americans. At the conclusion of the war, the federal government made efforts to rebuild the lives of former slaves. Though many of these “Reconstruction Era” efforts were well-meaning, they faced stiff opposition from former slave owners and politicians who did not want to enfranchise African Americans. As a result, many freed slaves faced generational socioeconomic hurdles preventing upward mobility.

21st century politicians and economists are still grappling with how to best address significant disparities in wealth and racial equality. One frequently discussed idea is the payment of reparations to descendants of former slaves. The goal is to properly fulfill the failed promise of Reconstruction Era policies and fight against systemic and historical barriers to advancement. However, these policies come in many different forms and are contentious for many Americans.

This lesson focuses on different aspects of reparations throughout American history. The goal is to force students to confront questions about how to best address ongoing disparities of race, wealth, and justice. How has the United States tried to address these questions in the past? Why has reparations endured as controversial issue in American politics today?