A Just Cause

IS history becoming unsafe for injustice? About sixty German companies, including Deutsche Bank, Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, and Volkswagen, along with the German government, have offered to pay $5.1 billion in reparations to the "slave laborers" who were forced to work in their offices and factories during the Third Reich. Swiss banks are unbuttoning their discretion to pay Holocaust survivors -- or, in the case of deceased victims of the Holocaust, their families (a significant inclusion) -- for money and treasure stolen from them by the Nazis. These precedents of historical responsibility have raised anew the question of reparations to African-Americans for the still-echoing horrors of 246 years of slavery. Randall Robinson's eloquent book -- The Fire Next Time, perhaps, for this generation -- could help to turn a mood into a movement.

Randall Robinson is one of the heroes of the patient struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He began his campaign in 1972, when, with a group of thirty black Harvard students, mostly from the law school, he occupied the office of Derek Bok, then the president of Harvard, to pressure the university to sell its holdings in companies with operations in the white-led colonialist states of Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa. The occupation lasted a week (a record for Harvard occupations), and by the long measure of anti-apartheid activism it worked. After nearly thirteen years of protests and embarrassments, the Harvard Corporation began "selected divestments" in 1985. (For information on the divestment movement see Robert Kinloch Massie's stirring 1997 history of U.S.-South African relations during the apartheid years, ) In late 1984, when President Ronald Reagan's re-election -- to which whites in South Africa responded by dancing in the streets -- made the cause seem hopeless, Robinson reanimated the movement by occupying the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. Hundreds followed him: being arrested in front of the embassy became a rite of passage for idealistic young people born too late for the civil-rights movement. TransAfrica, the pressure group Robinson revived in 1984, was well on its way.

Today Robinson wants to employ the tactics that ended apartheid to advance the justest cause in history. He envisions a "Year of Black Presence":

Every black church, organization, and institution would commit to choose one day of the 130-odd days that the Congress is in session and bring on that day one thousand African Americans to walk the halls of Congress in support of compensation measures designed to close the economic and psychic gap between blacks and whites in America. The Congress, for one year, would never stop seeing our faces, never stop hearing our demands, never be relieved of our presence.

is a work of ideas, not of policy prescriptions; nevertheless, Robinson has wisely included some proposals to bring home to his readers what's at stake. His main proposal, taken from the article "Many Billions Gone," by the Tulane Law School associate professor Robert Westley, is that a private national trust be established, with heavy contributions from the government, to pay for enriching the education of black children and for the college tuition of "all blacks who qualified academically and were found to be in financial need." Research into the uncompensated contributions that blacks have made to white businesses and individuals down the years would set the size and duration of the trust. Corporations, governments, and other institutions found to have benefited from slavery would be assessed "just compensation as an entitlement" for the labor they stole; these funds, too, would flow into the trust.

This compensation would be sought with the "same vigor that Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat demonstrated on behalf of Jewish survivors of the Nazi holocaust," if Robinson had his druthers, and the trust would establish a museum of slavery on the Mall, in Washington, to document the magnitude of American iniquity. Robinson wants young African-Americans to see why they are disadvantaged relative to white Americans. "You are owed ...," he writes. "The fault is not yours. There is nothing wrong with you. They did this to you."

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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