A Year of Black Presence in 2002: Be there!

“If blacks are to have any chance for success (with reparations), we must make it clear to America that we will not allow ourselves to be ignored. I would offer in this connection a tactical suggestion: In addition to building our case on factual evidence, precedents, and serious scholarship, we would more effectively project our demands upon Washington policy makers were we to launch what I will call, A Year of Black presence.

Every black church, organization, and institution would commit to choose one day of the 130-odd days that the Congress is in session and bring on that day one thousand African Americans to walk the halls of Congress in support of compensation measures designed to close the economic and psychic gap between blacks and whites in America. The Congress, for one year, would never stop seeing our faces, never stop hearing our demands, never be relieved of our presence.” (emphasis added) Randall Robinson

After reading these words in Randall Robinson’s magnificent book, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, it was immediately apparent that this “tactical suggestion” needed to be brought to life. The National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) intends to do just that.

Transforming a long overdue debt to African-Americans into reparations payments will require action by African-Americans. Some of the nation’s best legal minds are currently studying ways to haul the government, and possibly some corporations, into court with reparations lawsuits. However, we must learn a lesson from the Civil Rights struggles of the Sixties and use a two-pronged approach of both litigation and agitation.

The three-fold mission of N’COBRA’s A YEAR OF BLACK PRESENCE is straightforward:

Bring a bill sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), known as HR 40, out of committee and get it passed. The bill would establish a commission that would study the effects of slavery and segregation, report on the legacy these evils have left on society, and recommend whether or not the government should pay reparations as a remedy. At this point, Congress apparently has such contempt for the issue that they don’t believe a discussion and study is even necessary.

Have a voice in determining who appoints the HR 40 commission and who sits on the commission.


Although Conyers has introduced the bill each year since 1989, he has been unable to muster enough votes to get the bill out for a floor vote by the House.

As written, the bill calls for the President, the Speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate to select the commission. Today that would be President Bush, Rep. Dennis Hassert (R-Illinois) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (D- So. Carolina). N’COBRA believes some African-American voices should be involved in the selection process.

Awarding reparations, or even considering it, will be a contentious issue for the country. The nation must be persuaded, by any means necessary, that it’s in its best interest to attempt to correct historic wrongs and crimes against humanity. What form this amending of wrongs will take needs to be discussed at length and decided.

Without a mass mobilization of black people, reparations will almost certainly not be considered by Congress. Therefore the Philadelphia chapter of N’COBRA will make several recommendations to the organization’s national convention in late June.

1) We will ask that from the Fall 2002 through Spring 2003 be designated A Year of Black Presence in Washington D.C. In November 2002, Congressional Representatives are up for election. At least 1,000 African-Americans will walk the halls of Congress each day they are in session to raise the level of awareness about reparations issues.

2) We will increase our efforts to bring HR 40 out of the Judiciary Committee and get it passed even before going to Washington. If HR 40 is passed before A Year of Black Presence begins, we’ll shift our efforts, probably informing the work of the Reparations Commission and educating Congresspersons so they understand that awarding reparations will be in the best interests of our nation. However, if HR 40 has not passed, then we lobby and agitate to get the bill passed and have a voice in determining who sits on the Reparations Commission.

3) N’COBRA-Philadelphia will pledge to mobilize 5,000 people and have them ready to go to Washington, D.C. -1,000 per day- in the Fall of 2002. The Philadelphia effort should serve as a pilot program to show 25 other cities and/or areas how to mobilize at least 5,000 people.

4) We will ask for approval of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 4 basic steps of action mentioned in “Letter From Birmingham Jail” as a model to use in our mobilization. The four steps that Dr. King articulated are as follows: collection of facts to determine whether injustices are alive; negotiation; self -purification; direct action. A responsive Congress would make only the first two steps necessary; a non-responsive Congress would necessitate use of all four steps.

For a reparations movement to be successful, African-Americans from all walks of life must get involved through their churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, schools, businesses, fraternities, sororities, social clubs, and so on. If you don’t belong to a group, join a group, any group, as long as it’s an organization committed to positive change for black people.

Create a study group in your community. If you can bring 25 people or more together for a meeting and want someone from N’COBRA to come and speak and answer questions, call us at 215-604-3658.

I am just one person, many may be thinking, what can I do? Remember that Rosa Parks was just one person and look what she did. By saying one word -No!- she convinced 17,000 people to walk in dignity rather than ride segregated buses in humiliation, and she triggered the Civil Rights Movement.

It’s time for a Human Rights Movement and it may serve us well to consider the word of bell hooks, one of the country’s most brilliant professors, writers, and thinkers, as we mobilize for change.

“It is only as we collectively change the way we look at ourselves and the world that we can change how we are seen,” hooks writes. “In this process, we seek to create a world where everyone can look at blackness, and black people, with new eyes.”

Mr. Milton McGriff is a member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).

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