Juneteenth advocates call for action on reparations

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News/Brendan Smyth)
June 17, 2022: Participants in the Juneteenth rally in Newark, N.J.

Black families gathered across the country this Juneteenth weekend celebrating the day the last enslaved African Americans found out they were freed. Others enjoyed the newly recognized federal and state holiday off from work.

But New Jersey advocates used the holiday to renew long-standing calls for reparations, saying that Black people have never been truly liberated because they have not received compensation for the wages, time and other losses from the vestiges of their enslavement.

Gov. Phil Murphy and other state leaders need to do more than just commemorate the holiday, the advocates said, urging others to join them in pressuring the state’s white leaders to act.

Because Juneteenth has become synonymous with freedom, organizations like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and People’s Organization for Progress, as well as Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th) and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), used a rally in Newark on the Friday before the holiday to bolster the campaign for reparations.

“You all know that Juneteenth is more than a commemoration,” said Ryan Haygood, president of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, to the rally crowd in Newark. “Juneteenth is us committing (ourselves) to the ongoing fight for freedom and liberation and reparations.”

Haygood and other speakers at the rally called on Murphy and state legislators to support a stalled bill (A-938/S-386) that would create a reparations task force to study how slavery continues to impact its Black descendants through the racial wealth gap, the racial disparity in incarceration rates and more.

Bill has been stalled since 2019

Representatives of groups at the rally said that despite support from Murphy and other lawmakers during 2020’s reckoning with systemic racism, the bill has remained stalled in the Legislature since 2019 — when Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) and members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus first introduced it. Sumter has reintroduced the legislation every year since 2019, and every year it has failed to ever get a committee hearing.

Haygood said that when his organization spoke to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) about reparations in 2019, Coughlin told them that other members of the Legislature would take issue with the word “reparations.” Notably, in 2021, Murphy created a “wealth disparity task force,” which advocates see as a euphemistic concession from the state. Supporters would rather the state call it “reparations.” Sumter, who is also chair of the state caucus, told the rally crowd that all she needs is 41 votes of support in the Assembly and 21 in the Senate.

“I need Black, brown, white folks, Asian folks, to have courage to vote for a reparations task force in the state of New Jersey,” Sumter said.

Haygood later added that the “only impediment” is elected officials, pointing out the stark lack of racial diversity in officials at the state level.

“We will soon be a majority people-of-color state. Very soon. We can applaud that — what it speaks to is the burgeoning power and influence of people of color. But our challenge is that our state is segregated at the top. It’s a state controlled by three white men: the governor, Phil Murphy, white man; the speaker of the Assembly, Craig Coughlin, white man; Senate President Nicholas Scutari, white man.”

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who attended last year’s reparations rally in Newark held by the same groups, said then that she supported the reparations task force bill, hinting that the wealth disparity task force was not enough. Oliver is the only Black woman and person of color to have a key power role in Trenton, aside from members of Murphy’s cabinet.

Similar bill has stalled at federal level

While it’s unclear whether Murphy, Coughlin and Scutari were listening to the group’s calls for reparations, more and more municipalities and states are considering what compensation could mean. California has a reparations task force that recently recommended reparations for descendants of enslaved African Americans. A similar bill in the House, HR40, remains stalled at the federal level.

In the past, Murphy has said that he is open to the idea of reparations, but he points to the wealth disparity task force as one avenue to study them.

A reparations measure was first introduced in in Congress in 1989 by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) joined Friday’s rally to demonstrate their support of the state and federal reparations task force bills. Then White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in 2021 that President Biden supported the federal bill, although they would “see what happens” as the legislative process bore out.

Until legislation is passed in New Jersey, the groups involved in Friday’s Juneteenth rally said they would continue to fight for reparations in New Jersey.

“They stole us,” said Larry Hamm, chair for People’s Organization for Progress, to the rally.

“They stole us,” the crowd said back.

“They sold us,” Hamm continued.

“They sold us,” the crowd responded.

“They owe us,” Hamm finished.

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