U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) in Evanston Friday for a national reparations symposium, demanded that President Joe Biden put H.R. 40 in place via executive order, to set up the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans after a 38-year Congressional stalemate.
The Congresswoman made her case for federal reparations as local and state leaders from across the country stood in solidarity behind her during a news conference at the Hilton Orrington Evanston.
“H.R. 40, is 38 years on the books waiting for someone to say ‘yes,'” Jackson Lee said. “Today, we ask with no apologies for an executive order to be in place… An executive order now, we are Americans, too.
“I want for once an acceptance of the history, of the journey that African Americans have taken – to be an accepted reality in America,” Jackson Lee said. “Not out of anger, but out of how do we come together to resolute what happened.”
History of H.R. 40
H.R. 40, now has nearly 200 co-sponsors, and was introduced in 1989 by the late U.S. Rep. John J. Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who died in 2019. The bill if enacted would create a commission to identify the harm the African American community endured between 1619 to the present and determine steps for repairing the harm.
Biden has previously expressed support for the bill, said U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) who also spoke at the news conference.
In 2021, the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill, progressing it to the House floor. Millions of Americans support H.R. 40, Jackson Lee said. Still, she said an executive order is necessary.
Jackson Lee outlined numerous grievances and brutalities African Americans endured as the only group that spent more than 200 years as slaves in the U.S., she said. “We built the nation.”
African Americans were never compensated for their labor or for fueling the global cotton economy, Jackson Lee explained. Yet they have served in every war since the Revolutionary War only to be denied veteran benefits, she said. These examples were only several of the harms Jackson Lee mentioned in her speech.
The legacy of slavery continues to haunt the Black community, Schakowsky said. The gap in life expectancy between Black and white Chicagoans is the largest of any in the United States of America, she said.
“This didn’t happen just yesterday, or last year, or a decade ago,” Schakowsky said. “This is one small example of the legacy of slavery, the lack of equity in health care, housing, in benefits and achievement that we’ve made in this country.”
Local leaders speak up
Evanston Mayor Daniel Biss was among local leaders supporting the demand for an executive order.
“As important and meaningful and powerful as local government can be, this conversation cannot end on a local level,” Biss said.
“We cannot do what needs to get done with local initiatives alone, or frankly, with local dollars. That’s not going to get it done. So we’re here today to call on our federal government, to call on our Congress to pass H.R. 40, to call on our president to approve those actions because that is the way that we will achieve the level of repair that is needed.”
Evanston is considered a leader in the local reparations movement, which was moved forward by former City Council Member Robin Rue Simmons. Rue Simmons is founder and executive director of FirstRepair, a not-for-profit organization that informs local reparations and was one of the organizers the national symposium. She spoke at the news conference as did reparations leaders from other states who also urged the president to take action on H.R. 40.
“The reason why we need a movement like H.R. 40 is because we have to address this false narrative,” said Sheryl Davis, director of San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission. “We have to stop believing that some states are more progressive or that they have done better by Black folks than other states. The truth of the matter is from segregation to anti-literacy laws to slavery, Black folks have been over and over again, marginalized,” Davis said.
A Congressional Black Caucus poll found that reparations is a top issue for the Black community, said Kamm Howard, co-chair of the National African American Reparations Commission and an international leader on the subject.
In Howard’s demand for H.R. 40, he reminded President Biden and the Democrat party of the power of the Black vote.
“In the last 60 years, with just one exception, it’s been the Black vote that has made the difference for every Democratic president in the U.S.,” Howard said.
“The Black vote delivered to America President Kennedy, the Black vote delivered to America President Carter, Presidents Clinton, Obama, and also to you, President Biden. None of the Presidents mentioned were able to win the majority of the white vote in this country. It was a Black vote that made the difference.”