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'Making amends': Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates makes case for slavery reparations before Congress

The debate over reparations for descendants of slaves catapulted Wednesday from the campaign trail to Congress with an impassioned plea from actor Danny Glover, Baltimore native and author Ta-Nehisi Coates and others for lawmakers to address compensation for America's blighted heritage of racism and Jim Crow laws.

Glover, who told a House Judiciary panel that his great-grandfather was enslaved, called a national reparations policy "a moral, democratic and economic imperative."

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Coates, who drew new attention to the issue with his 2014 essay, "The Case for Reparations," told the panel "it's impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery."

It was Congress' first hearing in a decade on the topic and comes amid a growing discussion in the Democratic Party on reparations and sets up a potential standoff with Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell opposes the idea.

"This hearing is yet another important step in the long and historic struggle of African Americans to secure reparations for the damage that has been inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow," Glover told the panel.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a longtime civil rights leader, told the Baltimore Sun an hour after the hearing, “all Congress is asking for is let’s just study it.”

“If there’s no damage,” Jackson said, “there’s no repair to be done.”

Although he was not able to testify in Wednesday’s hearing, Jackson put forth the idea of reparations in his national platform back in 1988 when he ran for president of the United States.

“Too few got too much and too many got virtually nothing,” Jackson said.

Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat and presidential contender, testified that the U.S. has "yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country's founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality."

But another writer, Coleman Hughes, who at times testified over boos from the audience, said black people don't need "another apology," but safer neighborhoods, better schools, a less punitive criminal justice system and better health care.

“Reparations are only given to victims,” Hughes said. “You’ve made me a victim without my consent.”

When asked about the 23-year-old’s comments, Jackson, who’s been an advocate for reparations since long before Hughes’ was born, said, “he’s just ignorant.”

Jackson described Hughes’ argument as an uninformed opinion.

“His grandparents went to the back of the bus without their consent too,” he said.

The legislation, which would set up a bipartisan commission to study the issue, spotlights a national conversation over the legacy of slavery. Several of the Democratic party's presidential candidates have endorsed looking at the idea, though they have stopped short of endorsing direct payouts for African Americans.

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House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland on Wednesday called reparations a "serious issue" and said he expects the resolution will see a vote in the House.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who became the sponsor of a measure to study reparations after the retirement of Democratic Rep. John Conyers, said to the packed hearing room, "I just simply ask: Why not and why not now?

But McConnell opposes reparations, telling reporters Tuesday that he doesn't want reparations for "something that happened 150 years ago."

"We've tried to deal with the original sin of slavery by passing civil rights legislation," McConnell said, and electing an African American president, Barack Obama.

"It would be hard to figure out who to compensate" for slavery, added the Kentucky Republican. "No one currently alive was responsible for that."

While the notion of reparations has been moving toward the mainstream of the Democratic Party, the idea remains far from widely accepted, both among Democrats and the public at large.

In a Point Taken-Marist poll conducted in 2016, 68 percent of Americans said the country should not pay cash reparations to African American descendants of slaves to make up for the harm caused by slavery and racial discrimination. About 8 in 10 white Americans said they were opposed to reparations, while about 6 in 10 black Americans said they were in favor.

Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, said he respects the beliefs of those who support reparations. He called America's history with slavery "regrettable and shameful."

But he said paying monetary reparations for the "sins of a small subset of Americans from many generations ago" would be unfair, difficult to carry out in practice and, in his view, likely unconstitutional.

Top Democrats pushed back Wednesday on McConnell's comments, with one calling his remarks "sad."

Rep. Kathleen Clark, D-Mass., a member of the leadership team, said the country's history of slavery is a "stigma and a stain" that continues to be felt today. That McConnell wants to "write that off," she said, is ignoring the impact and legacy of the country's history.

"We cannot look to him for any sort of moral authority or guidance on how we should be addressing the issues of slavery and the impact today on income inequality, curtailing opportunity and civil rights and voting rights," she said.

Republicans invited Hughes and also Burgess Owens, a former Oakland Raiders football player and Super Bowl champion, who recently wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial eschewing reparations.

The debate over reparations for black Americans began not long after the end of the Civil War.

A resolution to study reparations was first proposed in 1989 by Conyers of Michigan, who put it forward year after year.

Visitors lined up Wednesday to attend the hearing. Abibat Rahman-Davies, 20, from Southern California, said she was waiting more than two hours.

"I think that this has been a part of history that we've ignored for too long so it's very important for me to be here and to see this part recognized," she said.

The hearing Wednesday coincided with Juneteenth, a cultural holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved black people in the United States.

Baltimore Sun reporter Juliana Kim contributed to this article.

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