Until he retired in 2017, John Conyers was the longest-serving African-American member of Congress. The former U.S. Representative for Michigan (1965 to 2017), is the first to introduce a bill calling for the study of slave reparations for African Americans. In 1989 he introduced H.R. 40.
When Conyers resigned from Congress amid sexual misconduct allegations Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, took up lead sponsorship of the bill.
In all Conyers worked nearly 30 years pushing for reparations. And today, some of the Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have publicly discussed and debated the issue of reparations.
Conyers, a lawyer and then a ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced HR. 40 — a bill that would establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery in the U.S. and its early colonies, and suggest appropriate remedies.
The name of the bill has a historic reference. “Conyers started introducing what’s known as H.R. 40 in 1989, choosing the bill number to symbolize the ‘40 acres and a mule’ promised to slaves by Union Army Gen. William T. Sherman in 1865,” the Detroit News reported.
The H.R. 40 bill has several factors. “The bill does four things: It acknowledges the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery; it establishes a commission to study slavery, its subsequent racial and economic discrimination against freed slaves; it studies the impact of those forces on today’s living African Americans; the commission would then make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies to redress the harm inflicted on living African Americans,” according to Change.org.
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The study would analyze at the long-term ramifications of slavery. “This bill establishes the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies,” according to the Congress.gov website.
In January 2017, Conyers re-introduced updated legislation for the 115th Congress. It was titled The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act. While similar to the earlier measure, it was amended to reflect expanded legal and societal discourse about the Transatlantic Slave Trade and reparations.
His new HR. 40 bill was backed by several groups including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Green Party.
In February 2017, according to NBC News, Rep. Conyers held a Capitol Hill briefing that gathered activists, politicians, community leaders, and scholars to encourage a national discussion about America’s history of slavery.
“I’m not giving up,” said Conyers. “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is formally addressed, our country’s story will remain marked by this blight.”
In 2019 there was finally a House Judiciary subcommittee meetings on Conyer’s former bill on the Juneteenth commemoration of the emancipation of slaves in the South. It was the first hearing for the legislation since 2007.
“John Conyers said to move on and to lead on, and for us to take this forward. Thank you, Congressman John Conyers, for all that you have done,” said Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who took over sponsorship of Conyers’ bill after his 2017 resignation. “I just simply ask, why not and why not now? If not all of us, then who? God bless us as we pursue the final justice for those who lived in slavery for 250 years in the United States of America.”
New Jersey Sen. and now-Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker introduced a version of the reparations bill in the Senate, H.R.40 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, in 2019.
“I feel a sense of anger where we are in the United States of America, where we have not had a direct conversation about a lot of the root causes of the inequities and the pain and the hurt manifested in economic disparities, manifested in health disparities, manifested in a criminal justice system that is indeed a form of new Jim Crow,” said Booker, who is running for president.
“We as a nation have not yet truly acknowledged and grappled with racism and white supremacy that has tainted this country’s founding and continues to persist.”
Conyers stressed that slavery affected generation after generation and this had to be addressed by America.
“In a letter to Congressional colleagues, Conyers said the harm caused by slavery has reverberated for centuries and impacted descendants. After decades of Jim Crow segregation there’s been racial discrimination and policies that still affect many African-Americans today in education, housing, healthcare, and criminal justice,” NBC News reported in 2017.
Conyers had support for his colleagues. “Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Southfield, a co-sponsor of H.R. 40, said the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation cannot be separated from racial disparities in wealth, education, housing and criminal justice today,” the Detroit News reported.
“We need to have the conversation, and for anyone who is alive and breathing to know that the impact of slavery and racism on shaping present-day conditions in our community is real. It would be such an amazing breakthrough for this country in race relations,” said Lawrence. “I am significantly encouraged that people who are running for the United States presidency have the courage and compassion to actually talk about this.”
Conyers re-introduced HR 40 every Congress since 1989, and before he unexpected retired he vowed to continue to do so until it was passed into law.