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Catholic groups join call for African-American slavery reparations in new letter to Congress

Hundreds of national groups, including Catholic religious orders, have signed on to a statement urging the government to finally pay slavery descendants their due.

(Anjali Nair)

Roughly 30 Catholic organizations, including dozens of religious orders and social justice groups, have signed onto a new letter to Congress in support of H.R. 40, the bill in Congress which would kickstart the study of federal reparations for African-American descendants of slavery.

The letter was released on February 4th, with signatures from more than 350 other organizations and individuals from around the country—including celebrities, activists, Christian denominations, and other religious, interfaith, and secular groups.

Addressed specifically to the House of Representatives, it is entitled “Repair Can’t Wait - Immediately Pass H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act”.

It follows a similar letter released by HRC in July 2020, and is being spearheaded by Human Rights Watch, the NAACP, the National African American Reparations Commission (NAARC), and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA).

“We urge Congress to immediately bring House Resolution (H.R.) 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act, to a full vote on the House floor,” the 2022 letter reads in its opening lines.

“People in the US are now more eager than ever to pull back the curtain on institutions to see whether they have helped to advance or stall racial progress, and those institutions include the US Congress.”

The bill, originally introduced in 1989 by the late Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, has been presented in every successive Congress since and only recently reached the point of an official hearing, in June 2019.

Conyers died later that year, and the bill has since been taken up in the House by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and—for the first time—in the Senate as well, led by Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Each instance of the bill throughout its decades-long history has died in committee, and the current iteration, introduced in January 2021, has been largely untouched since clearing the House Judiciary Committee in April of that year.

“H.R. 40 has a record 215 members of Congress committed to voting “yes” when the bill comes to the House floor,” the new letter reads.

“With this level of support, it should pass the House, so long as Leadership sticks to public promises to get behind it and advance the bill,”

The statement notes the history of the reparations movement in the United States, including the growing support nationwide for slavery reparations and the fact that Japanese Americans long ago received financial recompense for the inhumane treatment they received from the government during World War II.

Dozens of Japanese-American and other AAPI groups signed on to the letter, following recent media reports that such ethnic groups have begun to put their weight behind the slavery reparations movement more generally.

Among the most prominent Catholic groups among the signees is the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, a historic group that recently named an African-American, Joan Neal, as its deputy executive director.

Also present is Pax Christi USA, a pacifist organization that most recently awarded its annual “Teacher of Peace” title to Fr Bryan Massingale of Fordham University, for his work in anti-racist activism and advocacy.

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary—a White congregation co-founded in 1845 by a Black Catholic nun and former Oblate Sister of Providence, Mother Theresa Maxis Duchemin, IHM—also signed on.

The Franciscan Action Network and Leadership Conference for Women Religious (which represents sisters from more than 300 orders across the country) can also be found on the list, and among the secular groups is the National Urban League—which has been run by the Black Catholic former politician Marc Morial since 2003.

A number of Catholic individuals also signed onto the letter, including religious sisters from the Sisters of St Francis, the Sisters of St Mary of Namur, and the Sisters of Sr Francis of the Neumann Communities.

They were joined by Brother Todd Sadler of the Ithaca Catholic Worker and Melisande “Meli” Short-Colomb, a Catholic descendant of the African Americans enslaved (and sold) by the Jesuits during the early history of Georgetown University.

“The world is waiting to see how the US government makes amends and repairs the harm stemming from slavery, but every year the same message gets sent: Black votes matter, but not Black lives,” the letter says.

“Undoing racial injustice and achieving racial healing requires remedy and repair.”

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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