20/20: Americans Debate Reparations for Slavery

ByABC News
March 22, 2001, 7:23 PM

March 23 -- There's no disputing that Americans of African descent suffered centuries of enslavement. What's far less certain, however, is what kind of debt is owed to the descendants of those slaves.

Students on several college campuses are up in arms over an ad placed in campus newspapers this week by conservative activist David Horowitz. The ad denounces the suggestion that the United States should compensate its African-American citizens for the injustices suffered by slaves.

The protests and Horowitz's ad are just the latest signs of the simmering national debate over slave reparations.

Crusade in the Courts

A group of influential lawyers and scholars called the Reparations Coordinating Committee has focused on the institutions it says have profited from slavery. Led by civil-rights activist Randall Robinson, it plans to bring massive lawsuits against the government and major corporations.

"The principal income mechanism for the United States during the years of slavery was cotton. It made us a powerful country," says Robinson. "The people who produced the cotton were never paid."

Robinson won't specify the group's targets, but some companies have already acknowledged their role in slavery.

The Hartford Courant newspaper, for instance, apologized last year for running ads for the sale and capture of slaves.

Aetna Insurance has issued a statement apologizing for insuring slaves as the personal property. The company's formal statement concludes: "No further actions are required."

Robinson disagrees: "An apology is not the end of the matter, an apology is the beginning of the matter It's not good enough to say, 'Yes, we did it, and we're sorry."

A Legacy of Debt

Slave reparations are not a new concept, dating back to the Civil War.

General William Tecumseh Sherman first suggested that freed slaves each receives "40 acres and a mule." President Andrew Johnson and the U.S. Congress rejected the idea.