Robert V. Ward Jr.:
Reparations for Slavery Now
March 23, 2004
THE DISMISSAL in January of the slavery-reparations lawsuit by the U.S. District Court in Chicago, while a setback, does not mean that the battle for reparations has ended. Judge Charles Norgle's decision can be primarily traced to the plaintiffs' failure to show a direct link between the corporate defendants and slavery.
The Farmer-Paellmann lawsuit was filed in February 2003 against FleetBoston Financial Corp., Aetna, CXS, Lehman Brothers, R.J. Reynolds and several other well-heeled U.S. corporations. The suit alleged and documented that each of these companies, in their formative years, derived significant economic benefits from the U.S. slave trade.
Apparently Judge Norgle was not convinced. But this is not really a surprise.
FleetBoston did not exist during slavery. However, the companies that eventually evolved into what is now FleetBoston -- soon to be merged into Bank of America -- did.
Slavery has plagued our nation since its inception. Our founders were courageous when it came to fighting colonial Britain, but they lacked the fortitude to face their own demons, and chief among the demons was slavery. Only the Civil War settled the slavery question.
Yet after the Civil War, attempts to address the by-products of slavery were short-lived. By the end of the 19th Century, the institution of slavery had been replaced by an equally onerous system of segregation, sanctioned by the government when the Supreme Court, in 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson, announced that the policy of "separate but equal" was constitutional.
Heads of such companies as FleetBoston, Aetna, CXS, Lehman Brothers and R.J. Reynolds played no role in those historical events. But, like slavery, their ancestors benefited from the system. They received the privileges that come from wealth secured on the backs of others. For decades, the companies named in the reparations suit profited from slavery and segregation.
Nothing in Judge Norgle's opinion disputes this fact. He simply said that he wanted additional proof before letting the named companies be held accountable. In fairness to the court, this is not, ultimately, a legal dispute. Rather, the question is: Do these companies have a moral imperative to come clean? The litigation offered a wonderful opportunity for them to do so by reaching some kind of accord.
The plaintiffs did not want personal gain. They sought the establishment of a trust fund that could be used to provide housing, educational and health-care opportunities for members of the African-American community, the descendants of slaves.
The concept of compensation from those who have been unjustly enriched is not novel. It has been a basic tenet of Anglo-American jurisprudence for centuries.
Furthermore, the lawsuit was about neither guilt nor blame. It simply tried to redress a crime against humanity that started nearly 400 yeers ago but which, like a devastating earthquake, still causes terrible aftershocks today.
On Jan. 19 our nation celebrated the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Numerous speeches focused on his dream of equality. Many of the companies named in the reparations lawsuit probably set aside time at their respective offices to commemorate the life of Dr. King.
During those festivities, I hope that companies such as FleetBoston, Aetna and the others reflected upon why equality was so important to Dr. King, and why it remains important to all Americans.
Corporate giants such as FleetBoston have helped bring about progress -- and a measure of equality -- in our country. But equality was only part of Dr. King's dream. The rest of the dream was empowerment of the descendants of slaves. And empowerment can happen only when there is access to jobs, education and housing for all of us who call ourselves Americans.
The time has come to build a new nation -- one that is free from the shackles of slavery. Settlement of the reparations case can help. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- Judge Norgle's ruling, I hope that the parties will take this unique opportunity to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream the new American reality. It is time to settle this lawsuit.
Robert V. Ward Jr. is dean of Southern New England School of Law, in Dartmouth.