Town Hall precedes November push for federal reparations legislation

Office of Public Witness shows renewed support for H.R. 40

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

Christian Brooks is the Representative for Domestic Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness. (Archived screenshot)

LOUISVILLE — The Presbyterian Office of Public Witness was part of a virtual Town Hall Wednesday aimed at getting federal reparations legislation to a congressional vote in the next few weeks.

OPW’s Christian Brooks represented her office and the National Council of Churches during the Town Hall by a coalition of groups in favor of H.R. 40.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the NCC “have been extremely involved in advocating for the passage of H.R. 40, as well as addressing issues of racial equity and systemic racism because again, we believe that it is our job to advocate for and dismantle these things within our own communities as well as within the United States government,” said Brooks as she was concluding her remarks.

H.R. 40 would establish a commission to examine the history of slavery and discrimination in the United States, from 1619 to the present, and recommend appropriate remedies.

“This is a commission to fully investigate and prepare reparations proposals in a comprehensive and consultative way,” said Dreisen Heath, a researcher and advocate in the U.S. Program of Human Rights Watch. “This process has never been done before.”

Following a historic victory in April when H.R. 40 made it out of the House Judiciary Committee after being introduced every year since 1989, the legislation has been stalled. But supporters aren’t giving up.

“What we’re asking for is a House floor vote before the Thanksgiving break,” Heath said. “We want to see this bill successful. We don’t want to see it fail.”

More than 200 people, including H.R. 40’s lead sponsor, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), turned out for the Town Hall and discussed mobilization efforts, including holding a Week of Action and reaching out to congressional leaders.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas)

“We’re going to keep pushing and we know that our leader, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, is going to do everything that she can with her strategic vision to work with leadership to move this forward. But we implore you to help us, to lift your voices and to make sure that leadership knows we want their response,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, executive director of the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch. “We want them to do the right thing and we want H.R. 40 moved to the floor for a full vote.”

During remarks, Brooks said the issue is of importance to Presbyterians and other people of faith because there’s a need to atone for the fact that white denominations used Christian doctrine to justify slavery.

“We recognize that in Numbers 5:5-8 God calls us to repair wrongs done to one another by confessing and making full restitution for wrongs committed,” Brooks said, “which means not only restoring what was taken, or fixing what was broken, but making the wronged party whole again.”

Such efforts include churches and denominations making reparations and working to dismantle internal racist cultures, practices and policies, she said. But it also includes the faith community making the U.S. government accountable for slavery and for policies and practices that have been damaging to the Black community, Brooks said.

Supporters want to see H.R. 40 brought up for a full House vote. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Public Witness)

Jackson Lee noted that Black labor has been key to America becoming a global powerhouse.

“It is no doubt that the basic infrastructure of America’s standing in the world — economic standing — came about through 246 years of unpaid labor, which did not require life insurance, workman’s comp or unemployment compensation,” she said, “and you didn’t have to have burial insurance because you were killed and thrown in places unmarked.”

Fellow speaker Alex Taurel of the League of Conservation Voters said there’s a connection between slavery and the environmental injustices that Black people experience today, from air and water pollution to lead poisoning. “That’s why we need this (H.R. 40) commission to take a really hard look at these issues … and suggest appropriate ways to repair the damage on the Black community.”

Learn more about H.R. 40 in this Action Alert from the Office of Public Witness.

The Office of Public Witness is one of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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