U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., discussed the importance of reparations in the current race debate - an issue he termed one of "the most sensitive and enduring topics in society" - in a lecture before a nearly filled Starr Auditorium Monday night.
Conyers' talk, titled "Honoring the Debt: Reflections on H.R. 40," was the final installment of the Perspectives on the Slavery Reparations Debate Speakers Series, sponsored by the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice.
Conyers first introduced House Resolution 40, "Commission to Study Reparations for African Americans Act," in 1989 and has reintroduced it in each subsequent session. The bill is designed to study the inherent injustice of slavery, examine its impact on African-Americans today and suggest possible remedies to the hardships they face.
"We are asking the legislation to create a commission of people with experience in reparations to assess how to reconcile America's history of enslavement, and what form reparation should take," Conyers said.
Conyers said he keeps the bill alive because "it's very important that we realize as scholars that we don't need to wait for this bill to be passed to continue work on the issue of reparations," he said.
Conyers stressed that H.R. 40 does not contain a specific plan for reparations. The primary objective is to compile an official study on the subject of African-American reparations, which Congress could use as a point of reference.
The study would attempt to represent the opinions of a broad spectrum of Americans living across the United States.
Conyers conceded that he himself is unsure what forms reparations should take and acknowledged that this remains perhaps the most difficult question in discussions of the topic.
"People are starting to realize that payment could create an immediate closure we might come to regret," he said. "This isn't about quick compensation or writing a check." The final action of the proposed committee must address slavery in a comprehensive manner that creates tangible social change and goes beyond merely allowing America to relieve its guilt, he added.
"Many of today's racial problems can be indirectly traced to slavery," Conyers said. He believes that H.R. 40 could lead to a reparation plan that addresses education, health care and poverty, because current civil rights remedies such as affirmative action policies are insufficient.
One way Conyers believes the reparations movement can continue to grow is through activism on college campuses. He praised the University's slavery and justice committee for its attempt to raise general awareness of the issue and said he would like to see a larger conference of universities working off the Brown model to create forums for discussing H.R. 40.
Ultimately, the support for H.R. 40 must come from the people, rather than the government, Conyers said.
In response to a question following his speech concerning how reparations would be distributed, Conyers explained the importance of viewing the issue as one of morals rather than a series of lawsuits where citizens attempt to prove their heritage and suffering.
"No living white person was responsible for slavery. This isn't about blame," he said. "It's a question of necessary action as a nation."
Conyers believes that it will be an uphill battle to pass the bill, let alone see it upheld in a largely conservative judicial system. "However, if eventually even one judge realizes that what happened was wrong and that it is an issue that can be addressed constitutionally, that's all it takes," he said.
He compared H.R. 40 to the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that legally ended the concept of "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites.
The issue of reparations holds added importance because many nations across the world are currently considering similar actions and are looking to the United States for guidance, Conyers said.
Conyers has served as a member of Congress since 1965 and is currently the second-most senior member of the House of Representatives.
He is also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of the House Committee on the Judiciary.