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Lecturer says U.S. government should apologize, consider other reparations to descendants of slaves

The U.S. government should make reparations for its role in slavery, at the very least by issuing an apology to African-Americans, a Harvard University law professor said last week.

Whether compensation to descendants of slavery is warranted ought to be studied by a commission, an idea that has been proposed by one elected official in Michigan, said Randall Kennedy, an 18-year Harvard professor.

Kennedy, whose research involves the intersection of racial conflict and legal institutions in American life, discussed the case for and the history of the idea of reparations for African- Americans during the Thomas M. Cooley Lectureship at the Law School Nov. 7.

Reparations seek compensationsuch as money, an apology or trust fundto descendants of slaves. Regarding monetary compensation, critics say any payment would present a logistical problem, and they question who should pay and who should receive it.

"I'm in favor of an authentic and authoritative gesture [an apology] by the United States government for its part in racial wrongs in this country," Kennedy said.

A government apology would not be unprecedented. In 1988, Congress voted to formally apologize to Japanese Americans who were driven from their homes in World War II and to give $20,000 to
each surviving internee. While it acknowledged at the time that nothing could change past wrongs, Congress expected the action to help Americans close that chapter in history.

Before issuing the apology, Congress created a commission to examine evidence in the treatment of Japanese-Americans and hear testimony from witnesses. Kennedy said a reparations commission is a sensible idea.

"A good idea wrapped in a bad form won't get you very far," said Kennedy, who joined the Harvard Law faculty in 1984 as an assistant professor and became a full professor in 1989.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D­Mich.) has been introducing legislation in Congress for 13 years to create a commission to study reparations, but the plan has not been approved.

The reparations debate has been in the news in recent years, but the subject dates back to the 18th century, Kennedy said. In 1773, four slaves unsuccessfully petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to get paid for their services.

Several notable African-Americans, such as Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr., wrote or spoke about reparations. Some former slaves also crafted letters to presidents seeking compensation, Kennedy said. This aspect of black history had been "muted" because American history book authors chose not to accentuate it, he said.

Kennedywho wrote "Race, Crime, and the Law and Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word"gave the 43rd lecture in a series that began in 1947. The Cooley lecture is named after one of the three original faculty members when the Law School was called the Law Department. Cooley, who served more than 20 years as a member of the Michigan Supreme Court, was appointed the department's dean in 1871.

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