Historic and Modern Social Movements for Reparations: The National Coalition for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) and its Antecedents
68 Pages Posted: 19 Jun 2010 Last revised: 26 Jul 2018
Date Written: May 31, 2010
Most of the legal scholarship on reparations for Blacks in America focuses on its legal or political viability. This literature has considered both procedural obstacles, such as statutes of limitations and sovereign immunity, as well as the substantive conception of a defensible cause of action. Indeed, Congressman John Conyers introduced H.R. 40, a bill to study reparations, in 1989 and every Congressional session since, and there have been three law suits that have received national attention. This Essay takes a different approach, considering reparations as a social movement with a rich and under-explored history. As Robin Kelley explains, such an approach is “more interested in the historical vision and imagination that has animated the movement since the days of slavery.” In keeping with such an emphasis, this Essay focuses on the diverse array of individual actors and institutions that for over a century have comprised the reparations movement. Contemplating reparations in this way, as a social movement, shifts attention away from the doctrinal and policy questions that have dominated the legal literature on the feasibility of reparations, and instead poses an intriguing set of other questions about the reparations movement’s complex, and at times competing, set of actors, institutions, and ideologies that, like N’COBRA, have been underexplored in the legal literature. This Essay takes as its case study seven of the diverse group of Black activists and lawyers who in 1995 joined the N’COBRA Reparations Litigation Committee. Using interviews with these original Committee members, it situates their contemporary activism within the long history of Black activism that viewed reparations and redress as part of the struggle for liberation from slavery and its vestiges. In so doing it changes the barometer by which we measure its effectiveness; instead of focusing solely on whether a specific legal result has been obtained, a social movements approach also questions how ordinary people develop a common “oppositional consciousness” and mobilize to confront what they perceive as injustice. This Essay tells their history, leading up to the resurgence of reparations activism today. It concludes that conceiving reparations as a century-old social movement in addition to a political and legal claim casts the contemporary reparations movement in a different light, illuminating competing visions of Black political subjectivity and activism within the reparations movement.
Keywords: reparations, race, social movements, civil rights
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