The Case for Black Reparations
A Piece of Truth
Days of Sadness, Years of Triumph: The American People 1939-1945
In 1969 James Forman disrupted Sunday worship at Riverside Church in New York City to deliver a “Black Manifesto” demanding that whites begin paying “reparations due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed and persecuted.” Most reaction—ecclesiastical and secular—ranged from unsympathetic to outraged, which was summed up by a New York Times editorial: “There is neither wealth nor wisdom enough in the world to compensate in money for all the wrongs in history.”
Boris Bittker, Sterling Professor of Law at Yale, attacks this position as “the conservative counterpart to the revolutionary maxim that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” He argues the case for reparations, not from an emotional but from a legal point of view. He bases his brief principally on Title 42, Section 1983 of the US Code, which holds “every person” who deprives “any person” of “any rights…secured by the Constitution and laws…liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity,…” and suggests that all black persons who have suffered injury as a result of school segregation during the Plessy period (1896-1954) are clearly eligible for reparations—just as today, for instance, the West German government is compensating Jews for Nazi persecutions. He weighs but does not necessarily resolve such questions as who is legally responsible, who would benefit (Groups or individuals? Who is black? How assess injury?), and how claims might be processed—all enormously complicated issues. Professor Bittker’s purpose here is to show that the concept of black reparations “is far from bizarre or unprecedented,” and in this he has succeeded with unusual force.
The title refers to Lady Fleming’s struggle against the dictatorship of the Greek colonels. The wife of the late Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin, Amalia Fleming is immensely attractive partly because of her selflessness. Only the filth of the jail cell in security police headquarters, after she was arrested in August, 1971, seemed to arouse in her any concern for herself. Unlike many other members of Greece’s professional classes who have been content to play it safe during the dictatorship, Lady Fleming has followed her personal ideals and assisted the victims of police torture.
She was arrested while attempting to free a patriot and confined to police headquarters next to the US Embassy. She describes the degraded, cynical mentality of her interrogators, their false charges, threats, and inducements—they even offered to make her a cabinet minister if she would publicly support the Papadopoulos regime. She met their cynicism with silence and demanded that those arrested with her be treated humanely; when they realized that she was utterly useless to the regime, she was deported to Britain. Her heroism, as it comes through in this book, seems genuine, and is enhanced by her modesty: no bombast, no proclamations to the Greek people or fatuous, self-consoling calls to arms.
Perrett’s study of the American character during World War II effortlessly re-creates the nostalgia of the Lend-Lease debate, the Third Term controversy (“Franklin to Eleanor: You kiss the Niggers/ I’ll kiss the Jews/ And we’ll stay in the White House/ As long as we choose”), zoot suits, the Dies/HUAC Committee and the “nasty little freshets of panic” which accompanied the onset of war, the impact of Pearl Harbor, the nonsense songs (“Mairzy doats and Doazy doats and Liddley lamzy divey”), saving tin cans, the news from the front, the influx of European refugees (Max Lerner exclaimed, “If Aristotle were alive today he would be a New Yorker”), the welcome phrase “unconditional surrender,” the atomic bomb, the end of hostilities.
We relive this seven-year period through Perrett’s voluminous research. But Perrett is after not only facts but what they add up to—and he believes that something very important happened to America during this time. The war years, he says, beckoned “the closest thing to a real social revolution the United States has known in this century”—large scale government intrusion into the economy was established, barriers to socioeconomic and raciosexual equality “were either much reduced or entirely overthrown,” higher education became “genuinely democratic” for the first time, the “only basic redistribution of national income in American history” occurred, and America emerged from the war cast in the role of undisputed world leader. Moreover, the American nation experienced a “renewal of authority” during the war era. By a “commonality of purpose, outlook and needs,” it accumulated social and political capital upon which the country has lived for more than twenty-five years, an “account [which] is now almost exhausted.” These are large, bold claims, and it could be argued that Perrett’s generalized interpretation is too avuncular and unexacting. But assessment of the war years has only just begun, and Perrett’s thesis has at least the merit of stimulating serious discussion of their effects.
(Notice in this section does not preclude review of these books in later issues.)
© 1973 Kirkus Service, Inc., a subsidiary of The New York Review of Books.