Monday Morning Thoughts: Why Burgess Owens Pushback on Reparation is Wrong

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images).

The debate over reparations figures to be divisive. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee is sponsoring HR 40, which would create a commission to study and develop proposals for slavery reparations.  Senator Mitch McConnell strongly opposed the idea, noting, “I don’t think reparations are a good idea.”

Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates pushed back, noting, “Enslavement reigned for 250 years on these shores.”

He argued: “When it ended, this country could have extended its hallowed principles — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — to all, regardless of color. But America had other principles in mind. And so, for a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell.”

Burgess Owens, an author and former NFL Player, was a witness at a congressional subcommittee hearing on reparations, and argued that the Democratic Party should pay “restitution” for the “misery” it brought to his race in the past.

“I used to be a Democrat until I did my history and found out the misery that that party brought to my race,” Mr. Burgess said.

He said, “Let’s point to the party that was part of slavery, KKK, Jim Crow, that has killed over 40 percent of our black babies, 20 million of them.”

He added, “Let’s pay restitution. How about the Democratic Party pay for all the misery brought to my race and those, after we learn our history, who decide to stay there, they should pay also. They’re complicit. And every white American, Republican or Democrat, that feels guilty because of their white skin, you should need to pony up also — that way we can get past this reparation and recognize that this country has given us greatness.”

My problem with the comments by Mr. Owens – they are limited and historically ignore the role that both sides played in slavery and the continuation of racism and white supremacy.

The history of the US is the history of slavery, white supremacy, genocide and subjugation of minorities by the majority.  Long before there were Democrats or Republicans, or indeed even an America so to speak, slaves arrived in 1619 as a Dutch ship brought 20 African slaves to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia.

The founding fathers of the US – many of them slaveholders – enshrined slavery into the Constitution as liberal northern delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania suggested a compromise allowing slaves to count for three-fifths of a person for the purpose of apportionment.

This is a theme that would repeat throughout history – one of southern racism but northern accommodation.  Mr. Wilson’s proposal was aimed as a way to gain southern support for a new framework of government in 1787.

Republicans like to point out that the Republicans led by Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves following the Civil War.  The history of that is a bit complicated, with President Lincoln taking great pains to avoid allowing the war to become a war to end slavery – with he himself believing that, while slavery was wrong, also that blacks were inferior.

As Ibram Kendi writes in his book Stamped from the Beginning, the Emancipation Proclamation was, among other things, a political document.

“Democrats mocked Lincoln for ‘purposefully’ making ‘the proclamation inoperative in all places where… the slaves [were] accessible,’ and operative ‘only where he has notoriously no power to execute it,'” as the New York World put it.

Moreover, Mr. Lincoln himself was a believer in segregation.  Historians note that he told “darky jokes” and “used the N-word in public and private.”

Lerone Bennett, Jr., argued, “(Lincoln), reluctantly embraced Emancipation halfway through the Civil War only after Congress enacted it and slaves voted with their feet for freedom by escaping to Union lines, and persisted to the end of his life in the belief that ”deportation” of blacks was the best solution to the race problems that would follow Emancipation.”

Regardless, one of the aspects of Reconstruction that Republicans like to forget about is how it ended.

Ibram Kendi writes, “No one ever revealed the exact terms of the ‘Bargain of 1877.’”

The 1876 election between Samuel Tilden (Democrat) and Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican) ended in a dispute.  Basically, Democrats agreed to give Mr. Hayes the presidency in exchange for Hayes ending Reconstruction, including the removal of military forces from former Confederate states and, perhaps most importantly, “The right to deal with blacks without northern interference.”

Prior to that compromise, blacks in the south were allowed to vote and some even held office.

After the compromise, most black men were effectively disenfranchised.

So Mr. Owens can argue that Democrats in the south were the force behind segregation, but it was political expediency by northern Republicans that allowed it to happen.

Segregation and Jim Crow in the south was carried out of course by southern politicians and under threat of terrorism by the Klan.

But, of course, none of that would have been possible without compliance from the US Supreme Court in 1896 that stamped its approval with the Plessy v. Ferguson decision.

The decision was 7 to 1 with only Justice John Marshall Harlan dissenting.  The court here enshrined the “separate but equal” ruling that, although the Fourteenth Amendment established the legal equality of white and black Americans, it did not and could not require the elimination of all social or other “distinctions based upon color.”

That was a court with five Republican and four Democrat appointees on it.

We flash forward to 1964.  Basically, 1964 represents a point of departure for the two parties.  Up until 1964, the Democratic New Deal coalition had held with Northern Liberal Democrats joined by Southern Conservative Democrats.

But the party was splitting.  In 1960, Kennedy carried most of the south including the deep south – Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, George, and South Carolina.  That changed in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson won all but six states, and five of those were the deep South States.

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, southern conservative politicians moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

Starting that process was Barry Goldwater.  As Elizabeth Hinton put it, “Barry Goldwater had introduced the idea of a ‘forgotten civil right’ into national political discourse to attract newly embittered white voters.”

As Taylor Branch recounts in his series on America during the King Years, Martin Luther King declared, “While not himself a racist, Mr. Goldwater articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist.”

What Barry Goldwater started, Richard Nixon perfected with the Southern Strategy.

Political analyst and Nixon campaigner Kevin Phillips, analyzing 1948-1968 voting trends, viewed these rebellious southern voters as ripe for Republican picking.

In his book, Emerging Republican Majority, he was able to predict that the Republican party “would shift its national base to the South by appealing to whites’ disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies.”

The history then is far more complex that Mr. Owens wants to believe.  The Democratic Party in the south did control the south based on its white supremacy.  However, the Republican Party in the north at critical times gained power through compromising to allow blacks to be subjugated in the south.  And they regained majority status following 1964 by appropriating those white elements in the south opposed to liberal democratic policies on race and the welfare state.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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4 Comments

  1. Alan Miller

    And every white American, Republican or Democrat, that feels guilty because of their white skin, you should need to pony up also

    I guess I’m off the hook, then, as I don’t feel guilty about my gorgeous olive complexion.

  2. Alan Miller

    the Democratic Party should pay “restitution” for the “misery” it brought to his race in the past.

    And yet I’ve known Jews who drove Volkswagons, even without the ‘our company killed your ancestors en masse’ discount.

  3. Alan Miller

    Mr. Lincoln himself was a believer in segregation.  Historians note that he told “darky jokes” and “used the N-word in public and private.”

    Well, darn!  Lincoln40 is finally about to break ground, and now they’ll have to change the name of the project before it’s even built.

    1. Bill Marshall

      And, Lincoln Nebraska, Lincoln Tunnel, other various cities and counties across the US…

      Serious students of Lincoln know he was flawed (and he knew it), but did the best he knew how, in the context of his times… therein, lies his greatness… IMO…

       

       

       

       

       

       

       

      c

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