Lawyers Plan Slave Reparations Suit
By Paul Shepard
AP National Writer
Saturday, Nov. 4, 2000; 11:14 p.m. EST A powerful group of civil rights and class-action lawyers who have won billions of dollars in court is preparing a lawsuit seeking reparations for American blacks descended from slaves.
The project, called the Reparations Assessment Group, was confirmed by Harvard law professor Charles J. Ogletree and appears to be the most serious effort yet to get American blacks compensated for more than 240 years of legalized slavery. Lawsuits and legislation dating back to the mid-1800s have gone nowhere.
"We will be seeking more than just monetary compensation," Ogletree said. "We want a change in America. We want full recognition and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered and exploited millions of Africans through no fault of their own."
Ogletree said the group, which includes famed attorney Johnnie Cochran, first met in July and will hold its fourth meeting in Washington D.C. later this month.
"This country has never dealt with slavery. It is America's nightmare. A political solution would be the most sensible but I don't have a lot of faith that's going to happen. So we need to look aggressively at the legal alternative," Ogletree said.
For now, there are more questions than answers in the planned litigation. Left to be determined are when the suit will be filed, exactly who will be named as defendants and what damages will be sought.
Ogletree declined to discuss specifics but said the federal government, state governments and private entities such as corporations and institutions that benefited from slave labor could be targets of the legal action.
"Both public and private parties will be the subject of our efforts," he said.
Ogletree said the Reparation Assessment Group includes attorneys Cochran and Alexander J. Pires Jr., who won a $1 billion settlement for black farmers who claimed discrimination by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Richard Scruggs, who won the $368.5 billion settlement for states against tobacco companies; Dennis C. Sweet III, who won a $400 million settlement in the "phen-fen" diet drug case; and Willie E. Gary, who won a $500 million judgment against the Loewen Group Inc., the world's largest funeral home operators.
Also in the group is Randall Robinson, president of the TransAfrica Forum, a think tank specializing in African, Caribbean and African-American issues. Robinson recently wrote the book "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," which argues for reparations.
"This will be the most important case in the history of our country," Pires said Friday. "We all agree the suit has to tell the story of what slavery has done to blacks in America ...
"We are still suffering from slavery's impacts today," Pires said.
Ogletree said the assessment group will call on experts in education, politics, family development, health and economics to help trace how slavery's outgrowths such as segregated schooling and neighborhoods have affected society today.
Enslavement of Africans in America began in the 1600s. A slave sale was recorded in 1619 in Jamestown, Va. The "peculiar institution" helped to fuel the prosperity of the young nation, while also dividing it. Slavery was not officially abolished in the United States until the 13th amendment was ratified, in 1865.
Reparation supporters point to recent cases where groups have been compensated in cash for historic indignities and harm.
A letter of formal apology and $20,000 were given by the U.S. government to each Japanese-American held in internment camps during World War II.
Austria last week established a $380 million fund to compensate tens of thousands of Nazi-era slave laborers who were born in six eastern European countries.
Reparation opponents argue that victims in the Nazi and Japanese-American cases were directly harmed while many generations separate enslaved blacks and their modern-day descendants.
In addition, those opposed to reparations say it isn't fair for taxpayers and corporations who never owned slaves to be burdened with possible multibillion dollar settlements.
Neither Ogletree nor Pires mentioned any industry or company that could be a target of the suit.
But Pires said there were overlaps between the slavery of past centuries and today's corporations. He noted that Aetna Inc., the nation's largest health insurer, apologized earlier this year for selling policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died.
In July, The Hartford (Conn.) Courant newspaper published a front-page apology for running ads for slave sales and the recapture of runaways in the 1700s and 1800s. Such advertisements were commonplace in many newspapers until the Civil War.
Pires was one of the lawyers in the assessment group who discussed reparations in the November issue of Harper's magazine.
Pires said he believes that any monetary settlement or damage figure should be among the last items discussed as the suit takes shape. He said it is more important to tell the story to all Americans of what slavery did to the country "and let people decide what should be done to repay."
"Most people," he said, "don't like having dirt on their hands."
© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press