Beatrice Peterson, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — It’s been more than a month since a dozen civil rights and religious groups say they sent a letter to the White House calling on President Joe Biden sign an executive order to study reparations by Juneteenth, or this Sunday, June 19, marking the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.
So, this week, because Biden hasn’t yet done so, activists began staging a first-of-its-kind visual installation on the Ellipse, near the White House, to get Biden’s and the public’s attention leading into America’s newest federal holiday, being observed on Monday.
The study activists wants comes after a decades-long push to establish a 13-person reparations commission in Congress.
The installation on the Ellipse includes a giant Pan-African flag, made of red, black, and green flowers alongside mulch provided by Black farmers — what activists say is a visual reminder of the need for reparations.
Shortly after the end of the Civil War, Union leaders promised formerly enslaved families “40 acres and a mule” — a promise never fulfilled.
However, a reminder of the centuries-old promise has languished in Congress for decades. H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act, has been introduced in every legislative session since 1989.
The measure seeks to establish a commission to study “and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, legal and other racial and economic discrimination, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies …”
In recent years, the bill has gained some political traction.
In 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hundreds of members of Congress and over 350 organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, NAACP and ACLU publicly announced support for reparations.
At the Tribeca Film Festival, “The Big Payback,” a documentary examining reparations, directed by “Living Single” actress Erika Alexander, premiered at the legendary festival in early June.
H.R. 40 passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in 2021 but has failed to come to a vote in the House or Senate.
Former White House press secretary Jen Psaki reiterated in 2021 that President Biden supported the study of reparations. However, when asked if he would support a bill on reparations Psaki said, “We’ll see what happens through the legislative process.”
Asked if Biden supports an executive order on the study of reparations, Psaki said at the time, “it would be up to him, he has executive order authority, he would certainly support a study, and we’ll see where Congress moves on that issue.”
A White House official told ABC News on Thursday, President Biden still “supports a study of reparations and the continued impacts of slavery but he is very clear that we don’t need a study to advance racial equity.”
The official added, “he is taking comprehensive action to address the systemic racism that persists today, including an executive order on his first day in office establishing a whole-of-government approach to addressing racial inequality and making sure equity is a part of his entire policy agenda.”
Nkechi Taifa is director of the Reparation Education Project, and has been calling for reparations for moire than 50 years. In 1987, she was one of the founders of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), an organization that worked closely with Democratic Rep. John Conyers to draft the introduction of H.R. 40 in 1989. She says now is the time for Biden to sign an executive order so the commission can be up and running before the end of Biden’s presidency.
Taifa says she hopes the display at the ellipse sends a message that reparations advocates need to be paid attention to, and Black people should not be taken for granted.
She told ABC News, “If they think they’re gonna rest on Juneteenth because it’s a holiday and a watered down policing reform bill — that’s not enough. Black people have been run roughshod over, you know, for centuries, and it just, it just cannot continue.”
Joan Neal, deputy executive director and chief equity officer at NETWORK, a social justice advocacy group founded by U.S. religious sisters tells ABC News, that “Slavery was a sin, that was the original sin of this country, and we believe that unless you acknowledge your sin and you make a firm determination to never do it again, and then make restitution for what was lost. You still have not been forgiven.”
She added, “All parties have to be willing to stand up and face the sin in order for the sin to be forgiven and in order for things to be whole again.”
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