Memphians react to slavery reparations proposal in Congress

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen was among those leading a new debate in Washington on Wednesday over reparations for slavery.

Cohen led discussions on Capitol Hill related to House Bill 40, a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates, New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker and actor Danny Glover testified in front of Congress.

"An honest reckoning with the federal government’s role in protecting the institution of slavery has been a leading priority in my congressional career,” Cohen said.

Wednesday was Juneteenth, marking the day when news of the abolition of slavery finally reached every state in the Confederacy back in 1865.

But many argue abolition wasn’t enough.

Daphene McFerren, director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis, welcomes the discussions. She says to her, reparations mean systemic change, not an individual stipend.

"There are a lot of issues. People are exhausted and want to know how they’re going to be resolved,” McFerren said.

Most supporters of reparations favor intense investment in institutions that impact people of color, she said.

"People of color have been subjected to the worst schools, jobs, disproportionate incarceration, and those issues are legacies of slavery,” McFerren said.

"You cannot expect to enslave people for four centuries, 400 years, and then say, well, you can bounce back because slavery has ended and then nothing has been done to address what happened for 400 years," Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner added.

Turner says he agrees with the need for more investment in minority communities, but he doesn’t think 2019 is the best timing; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he won't consider reparations.

"It’s unlikely. If passed in the House it wouldn’t make it in the Senate,” Turner said.

McFerren would disagree, pointing out it can often take decades to push through an important social movement.

You can view the entire hearing here.

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