A debt owed

The cost of economic injustice


Something remarkable happened in our state in July of this year. The City of Asheville apologized for its participation in and sanctioning of slavery. I admire and applaud the Asheville City Council for having the moral courage to pass this resolution, promising to pay reparations to the African American citizens of the city.

Race relations in our country are worse now than ever before. There is a lot of discussion about reconciliation in this country, but nothing is happening on a major scale, and there is a desperate need to do so. The result of not coming to a resolution on racism could result in devastating violence and destruction in America! Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

I believe I speak for many African Americans throughout this land when I say that we will fight to eradicate systemic racism, and all of the resultant disparate outcomes to our community, with every fiber of our being. As Dr. King termed it, we live with a “fierce urgency of now.” That urgency is to tear down what 400 years of oppression has produced, so that future generations of our children will not have to endure the fear and deprivation of the present.

There are many areas of injustice that need our attention today, such as criminal injustice, inequality in our health care system, inequity in our educational systems, and I could go on. But I believe the greatest area of need currently is a focus on economic injustice.

Black people in this country own about one half of one percent of the wealth. A 2020 Brookings Institute study reported that White families have the highest median wealth of $171,000, as opposed to Black families at $17,600. Many people will argue that we have had 400 years to work at this thing. Why have we not accumulated more?

The truth is, White families have been accumulating wealth for 400 years, beginning with the free labor of Black people. A recent Brookings Institute study revealed that in 1860, more than $3 billion was the value assigned to the physical bodies of African Slaves, used for free labor and production. In 1861, the value of cotton produced by slaves accrued to $250 million.

History will show that from the time of slavery until recently, the government of the United States acted in concert or willingly overlooked the violation of established laws in this country. This gross neglect led to the detriment of African Americans, while enriching White Americans. We’ve heard people say: “All you have to do is work hard and pull yourself up by the ‘bootstraps.’”

It is a little difficult to pull yourself up with no bootstraps! How fair is it to become wealthy on another person’s free labor, and then tell them that through hard work they can become as wealthy as you are? That is like starting a race three miles behind the front runner and expected to win a four-mile race.

So, there is a need for economic justice in this country in the form of reparations to be paid to the descendants of African Slaves, who were forced to enrich White America, through much pain and suffering. The definition of reparations is “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.”

Allow me to reveal the truth about the wrongs that were done, of which many Americans are not aware.

After the Civil War ended, in 1865, President Lincoln ordered General Sherman to give reparations of 40 acres and a mule to the freed slaves. Now, all immigrants who came to this country were given the same, if not more. When Lincoln was assassinated, President Andrew Johnson rescinded the order and gave the land assigned to the freed families back to the plantation owners.

After a brief period of Reconstruction (10 years), presidents Grant and Hayes made a series of compromises with the Southern Democrats to literally give control and power back to the Southern States. These states thereafter instituted a series of laws to repress and control Black people economically, socially, and politically. The laws were called the “Black Codes” and allowed the courts to incarcerate Black men on trumped up charges and use them as free prison labor.

Then came “Jim Crow” segregation, the Ku Klux Klan and violence that followed, even into the 1950s and ’60s. Black men were lynched and many times their property stolen and whole towns destroyed. Consider Wilmington, N.C., and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where hundreds of Black people were killed, their properties looted and confiscated, and no one was held accountable by the government.

In 1929, when the stock market crashed, and President Roosevelt, who was supported by Blacks, produced his $50 billion “New Deal” to the country, Black people were left out. After World War II, the GI Bill was passed to give low interest loans to soldiers to build homes in the suburbs, as well as grants to fund education and business enterprises. Unfortunately, but true to form, our government denied Black Soldiers the benefits that it gave to soldiers of every other nationality!

The idea of paying reparations to aggrieved people is not new to our country. Native Americans have received lands and billions of dollars for being forcibly removed from their land. America paid $1.5 billion to the Japanese for wrongfully interring them during World War II. Under the Marshall Plan, the U.S. helped to pay reparations to the Jews for the Holocaust. Our government, in 1863, even paid reparations to slave owners in Washington, D. C., when their slaves were freed!

Black Americans are the only group that have not received reparations for state-sanctioned racial discrimination, while slavery afforded some White families the ability to accrue tremendous wealth.

In my opinion, the only way to close the enormous wealth gap that exists in this country between White and Black families is to compensate those whose ancestors helped to build this country on free labor. After 400 hundred years, I think it is time for that restitution to occur, by the government of the United States of America, making good on the debt that it owes.

Some one may argue that I am not telling the truth here and may be a little loose with my facts. But you do not have to take my word for it. Just read the historical facts for yourself and let your conscience be your guide.

As a man of God, I will continue to pray for reconciliation in America. I greatly fear the consequences of not coming together in truth and love to bring about justice and peace. That is why I have given this historical account, because I believe that reconciliation can only come when truth is acknowledged and embraced. I also believe that there can be no reconciliation without the payment of reparations to the millions of African American descendants of slaves. If America has ever been great as a nation, it surely owes a debt to the millions of African American, who helped to build this country, who fought valiantly and gave their lives for America through at least five wars. And yet, even today, we still need to remind people that our lives matter.

Former Chatham County Commissioner Dr. Carl E. Thompson Sr. is senior pastor of the Word of Life Christian Outreach Center in Siler City.