The story goes like this: On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, S.C., a group of former slaves started to dig up the bodies of 257 Union soldiers who died in a Confederate prison camp and had been buried in a mass grave. For two weeks, the newly free of Charleston worked to rebury the soldiers in individual graves and give each a proper funeral, in gratitude, it is said, for the sacrifice made on behalf of the slaves in the fight for their freedom.
Though far from universally accepted, the events in South Carolina 149 years ago are cited as one of the possible beginnings of what we now call Memorial Day.
Other stories trace the holiday’s roots to the placing of flags or flowers on the graves of soldiers in 1866, ’67 or ’68, in towns as far-flung as Waterloo, N.Y., Carbondale, Ill., or even deep inside the former Confederacy in Columbus, Miss. But no matter the where or when of its inception, what was not in dispute then and remains an accepted fact today is that the annual May commemoration — previously known as Decoration Day for the adornment of the graves — has its origins in the Civil War.
So, it is more than fitting to take part of this holiday — now given over to both remembering the dead of so many of America’s wars and to kicking off a more amorphous celebration of life the country calls “summer” — to consider another legacy of the war to end slavery: The seemingly intractable economic disadvantage of large parts of the African American population.
In “The Case for Reparations,” his deeply felt and deftly written cover story for the June issue of the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that from the start of slavery in the New World, through the history of post-Civil War actions by the U.S. government, the enduring gaps in achievement and well-being, and, most notably, wealth, between black America and the greater population, are the result of clear cultural choices and pointed policy decisions.
Some of what Coates examines is as plain as the demarcations on a map: The Depression-era reform known as the Federal Housing Assistance program, which sought to lower interest rates and lessen down payments for working Americans looking to own their homes, also established a system of rating the credit-worthiness of neighborhoods. Known as “redlining” for the red sections of atlas deemed a bad risk, the FHA maps did nothing less than provide the legal structure for federally sanctioned racism — a discrimination that attacks not only an excluded prospective homebuyer, but the children and grandchildren of that man or woman, as so much of the country’s path toward economic stability and respectability is paved with the mansard roofs and manicured lawns of private home ownership.
Some of slavery’s legacies are harder to parse. Coates talks of a school of thinking that attributes the continuation of an underclass to “cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior.” Coates quotes Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, an African American, who blamed the persistence of violence in black communities on “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of.” Nutter urged black men to “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.” It is, as Coates notes, the disrespect at the heart of American racism. It is also rooted in a flawed logic that fails to acknowledge the wages of America’s original sin.
Despite its headline, “The Case for Reparations” is, in some ways, an un-ironically modest proposal. It does point out that for those who argue the seeming impossibility of figuring and financing a vast program of compensation, nothing in our history compares with the Civil War in terms of cost in life, limb and, in the case of the southern states, gross wealth — and yet the U.S. government of that supposedly less-enlightened time took on the challenge and the expense. But for Coates, the first step is a relative baby one.
H.R. 40, introduced every session for the last quarter-century by long-serving House Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, has a simple premise and basic instructions:
To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequently de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.
A commission! What so many Beltway watchers would consider nothing but a bureaucratic rearranging of the deck chairs on a sinking Ship of State. Still, Coates tells us that H.R. 40 has no chance of ever becoming law, let alone piercing the envelope of polite political conversation.
And that is a problem on this august May day, as it is on any of a number of America’s most solemn and most celebrated holidays. “Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling ‘patriotism’ while waving a Confederate flag.”
That might sound harsh to some of Coates’ hard-working countrymen, out to enjoy a well-earned day in the sun. But if they, or any of us, really, are going to truly honor “those that died to make us free,” then the question should be asked and the case should be made.
“More important than any single check cut to any African American,” Coates argues, “the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders.”