Many of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations have moved online during the coronavirus pandemic, sparking what leading organizers described as honest conversations about privilege and racial disparities after calls for racial justice amid the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people.
The Seattle MLK Jr Organizing Coalition — a group of organizations, businesses, and individual volunteers — arranged virtual events last week. In previous years, the organization organized about 25 indoor workshops and a job fair on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The virtual events explored the history of white supremacy and policing, strategies for community healing and reparations, among other topics. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of unity and judgment by character is still relevant, said Robert Alexander, the coalition’s vice chair.
“As our conversations about the economic polarization and stratification continue to bubble up, then we’re also going to talk about why those things have happened more,” said Alexander, who recently left the region to become an assistant district attorney in New Mexico’s Bernalillo County.
At a Wednesday evening workshop, presenter Marcia Tate Arunga — dean of The Evergreen State College Tacoma — shared the history and current relevance of reparations from her Tacoma home.
The idea of reparations, which originates from the Latin word for repair, was first discussed in the United States more than 150 years ago after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves, at least on paper. As the Civil War concluded, Gen. William Sherman ordered Confederate land on the Southeast coast to be redistributed to freed slaves. Field Order 15, known as the 40 acres and a mule rule, was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson less than a year later and the land was returned to the Confederate owners.
“Today we think of reparations as, where is that 40 acres and a mule?” Tate Arunga asked.
An acknowledgment of the damage caused by the transatlantic slave trade and the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation until the 1960s, is key to understanding reparations, she said. The process involves a sincere apology and making amends through financial payments or programs that encourage economic development of Black communities.
Examples of reparation throughout the world include The Civil Liberties Act of 1988, where the U.S. Government paid more than $1.6 billion to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created in 1995 to restore relations after human-rights abuses during apartheid. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $80 billion in reparations for the Holocaust.
A U.S. House bill introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, in 2019 would create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans, but there is now no movement on the measure.
The process of reparations asks: “How do we move forward in the same country and the same community and stay whole?” Tate Arunga said.
The National African American Reparations Commission — composed of academics, lawyers, journalists, medical professionals, historians, and social-justice advocates — was established in 2015 to fight for restoration of Black communities after the legacy of colonialism, slavery and segregation. A 10-point reparations program developed by the group suggests an apology from the U.S. government for its role in chattel slavery, along with the establishment of an African Holocaust Institute that educates the public on enslavement. Other points in the plan include financial support for Black people who choose to relocate to an African nation of their choice, resources for the health and wellness of U.S. Black communities, and the creation of affordable housing.
The legacy of enslavement and discrimination is found in racial disparities in health, education and economics, Tate Arunga said. Black and Native American women, for instance, are up to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Seattle, the Black household median income, at $42,500, is nearly a third of the $105,000 white household median income.
While living in Kenya, Tate Arunga learned that people captured from villages during the Transatlantic Slave Trade were missed by their families who searched for them to no avail. The revelation that her ancestors were among them sparked the idea for her book, “The Stolen Ones and How They Were Missed.”
People were captured for the skills the United States sought to develop the economy. For instance, metal workers from Benin were wanted for skills in making farm tools and gates, and rice growers in Senegal were kidnapped to cultivate rice in South Carolina. “They were living very full lives and were taken and disrupted from those moments,” she said.
Throughout history, ideas that were once considered radical became widely accepted by the public, Tate Arunga said. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, “the idea of enslavement ending was an unthought of idea. It was completely revolutionary and radical,” she said.
“We’re not talking about rewarding, we’re not talking about favoring, we’re talking about correcting the wrong which has been done,” Tate Aruna said. “It’s time for us to face it with our hearts.”
In addition to the workshops, a virtual youth event was aired on Rainier Avenue Radio on Sunday afternoon and can still be viewed on its Facebook page. Students who are people of color reflected on activism and their views of 2020. An outdoor march and rally will start at Garfield High School at 10:30 a.m. on Monday.