Since the case was filed, all 19 firms, Aetna, CSX, Brown Brothers and the others, have
filed a motion to dismiss. A decision is expected within weeks.
None of the companies provided a spokesman for a recent report on ABCNEWS’ Nightline that is the basis for this story. But in their motion, they argue there can be no legal claim against them when, “Allegations are so sweeping, the connections between the parties so tenuous, and the events in question so remote.”
Remote, however, depends upon where you sit.
In Unpredictable Debate, Legal Case May Fail
Antoinette Harrell-Miller, a plaintiff in the court case, doesn’t feel the need to draw a direct line between whether a specific ancestor was directly harmed by railroad company X or by insurance company Y. The New Orleans genealogist, who hosts a weekly TV program devoted to reparations, says it’s enough that the ancestor lived in bondage.
“He was a slave, kidnapped, brought into this country, forced to work, free labor,” she said. “That’s all it takes. That’s the way to come back into those families, you know. Look, you made money off my ancestors. You’re still making money today. Now, that’s a slap in the face to any African-American.”
Law experts say the legal reality is that the reparations case is probably going to fail.
And yet, that stark reality is unlikely to shut down the discussion on slavery reparations. There are too many voices in the African-American community that take this question more seriously, not less, as time passes.
For other people, something about the topic of slavery reparations sets them off. Some mock it. Some are infuriated by it. Some think it over and decide it’s just not realistic.
Who falls on which side of the debate is not always predictable.
There are whites who are for it, like the attorney Fagan. “I think everybody feels that it’s
OK to continue to just say to the African-Americans, ‘Sorry, you’re not entitled to anything. Don’t blame us for your lot in life today,’” he said. “The truth is they have a right to blame us for their lot in life today.
There are blacks who are against reparations, like the syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock. “It’s been 140 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation,” Murdock said. “At some point, what we as black people and we as a society have got to do is stop looking in the rear-view mirror, look through the windshield and see where we’re going forward, rather than where we were in the past.”
Headlines May Harm Firms
The question of whether too much time has passed is crucial, according to one of the central figures in the Holocaust reparations case.
“I don’t think they can get very far in the court of law,” said Stuart Eizenstat, a former U.S. special envoy. “If they want to succeed, it will be in the court of public opinion.”
After all, the Holocaust cases never went anywhere in court because the judges always threw them out. In the end, those German companies, Swiss banks and others agreed to pay damages just to get themselves out of the headlines. It’s a lesson Eizenstat thinks the slavery reparations movement should study carefully.
“We should use these cases as a platform to look at our past, as we used the Holocaust cases to force private companies in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France, to take a look at their conduct, and in the end, to be accountable for it,” he said. “Even though, again, the legal basis was very shaky.”