• Robert Drea
  • Reparations activist Conrad Worrill: “What happened to African people has never been repaired.”

In 2002 a group of African-Americans filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago demanding restitution from JP Morgan Chase, Aetna, CSX, and other corporations with links to slavery before the Civil War.

The suit asked that the companies disclose all of their predecessors’ ties to slavery and set up a trust fund for the descendants of slaves. It was part of a growing international movement to get Western institutions to come clean about their complicity in the economic systems built on slavery.

But in 2005 the suit was dismissed by a federal judge who ruled that the plaintiffs couldn’t show they’d been personally affected by the companies they’d sued. The judge also went out of his way to declare that the United States had already paid reparations in the form of the Civil War and civil rights legislation.

Other reparations suits around the country similarly came up short, and the reparations movement—which dates to the waning days of the Civil War—appeared to be on hold again. At the very least, the mainstream media stopped paying attention.

That changed in May, when the Atlantic published “The Case for Reparations,” the provocative and deeply reported article by Ta-Neisi Coates. It showed millions of readers that the issue wasn’t rooted in an abstract philosophical argument but in specific, widespread, and ongoing discriminatory policies, particularly in housing.

Reading the piece reminded me that I was way past due in catching up with Conrad Worrill, one of the leading advocates for reparations in the country and the chief organizer behind the 2002 suit.

Worrill’s day job is directing the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. But he’s also had a long and impactful career as an activist, from serving as one of the key organizers for Harold Washington’s mayoral campaigns to fighting for better athletic facilities in black neighborhoods.

In 2003 I wrote a profile of Worrill for the Chicago Reporter during the time he was working on the reparations lawsuit. When we sat down again recently, he discussed where the movement stands, how it’s connected to the epidemic of violence in Chicago—and, on another note, whether he thinks a Washington-like movement could send Rahm Emanuel packing.

A decade ago, the reparations movement seemed to be in full force, and then the lawsuits were all dismissed.

The reparations movement in that aspect of its strategy took a big hit.

Then the trajectory around Barack Obama’s presidential bid also stymied the discussion. I think there was a sentiment among a lot of black people not to do anything to harm Obama’s chances of being a successful president—to not create a firestorm that could have a backlash. I never bought into it, but that was the sentiment. So in effect, during this era with a black president, some of the critical issues affecting African-descended people were kind of diluted.

And some of the leaders of the reparations movement were passing on. [One of them was] Hannibal Afrik, one of the national cochairs of N’COBRA. So the organization that had singularly focused on organizing around the issue of reparations was faced with the challenge of new leadership. Younger activists are now trying to find a way to keep the momentum alive.

And you’re saying this was happening even before the Atlantic article.

In March, in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the 15 [Caribbean] nations had a conference and came out with a justice program. They said if they did not get a formal apology from England and other slave-trading nations, they would file a lawsuit. This made news around the world.

As a result of that, we sponsored a reparations forum at Chicago State in April. We webcast the event and more than 6,000 people watched and about 800 attended. Our purpose was to use the occasion to reintroduce the reparations.

Then here comes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article. It was very powerful.

Now the discussion is back in the public domain big time. The question now is, What is the strategy? The idea of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article—of black people getting ripped off in housing discrimination in Chicago—is something that potentially needs to be revisited.

But the housing issue, the redlining and all that, is really a national phenomenon. So research is currently under way to look at the continuation and manifestation of white supremacy and the institutional discrimination in housing, real estate, and so forth.

Who’s researching it?

Individuals. I am. And we’re having meetings to discuss it.

Besides housing, what are you looking into?

The legal system continues to say that since [the time of slavery], the statute of limitations has run out. So we’re looking at the whole prison-industrial complex—drug enforcement policies and the impact.

Are you familiar with Michelle Alexander’s book [The New Jim Crow]? After black people in 1863, ’64, ’65 found out they could leave the plantations in the south, many black men were rearrested walking down the roads of the south. It was a strategy—arresting people for vagrancy because they didn’t have a job. That was the basis of the rise of the prison-industrial complex.

If you examine history, no group of people in the world allows their tragedies and their history to go unnoticed. And taking a page from the Jewish people, their slogan is “Never forget.” One can say without a doubt that what happened to African people has never been repaired.

But we’ve heard the counterarguments: “I wasn’t around back then—I didn’t have anything to do with slavery.”

The U.S., the western hemisphere, was created on the backs of the slave trade. The descendants of slave owners say, “We didn’t have anything to do with it.” Well, maybe—but you benefited through wealth accumulation in your family and in your people. So you have a moral obligation, at least, to recognize that.

And even after slavery was abolished in this country, you created racial policies that continued to impact on the people you enslaved. That’s why this issue will never go away until it’s addressed.

How would reparations actually work? Some critics charge that reparations advocates just want to get a check from the government.

There’s no consensus on the actions that could ameliorate and address this repair. There’s also external repair and there’s internal repair, and they’re twin engines.

I think of the violence within the black community. People don’t know who they are, and they have nothing to lose, and they come out of second- and third-generation families where they haven’t had positive influences in their development, and you see what you get.

People can argue that despite this, we should be a more responsible people. I’m with that. As a matter of fact, I probably would throw in the towel on the [reparations] fight if we never got any material repair but we could come up with a strategy of internal repair, to bring back our own understanding of who we are as a people.

You’ve also been involved in electoral politics. What’s your take on our current mayor?

When I see Rahm Emanuel, I see outside interests. At least Richie Daley, as much as I may have disagreed with some of his policies and the legacy that he represented, Richie Daley went to De La Salle high school and grew up right over here at 34th and Lowe.

I remember one time I had an interaction with Mayor Daley [at an event]. Somebody said to me, “Conrad, go talk to Daley—don’t be disrespectful.” I said, “Fuck Daley!” But he was standing right over there, so I said, “Daley, didn’t you to high school with Paul King?” And he said, “How did you know that?” And Daley was naming all these black basketball players that he remembered. I said, “You do know a little something.”

Do you think Rahm can be beaten?

I don’t want to be a naysayer, but he has so much money, he can clearly buy the election. Now, using history as a model, if we had a mass movement and the resolve was clearly against Rahm, he could be defeated. But I don’t see that right now.

You don’t sound discouraged by any of this.

Movements, if you study them, unfold in cycles, and the dynamic of when they break out to become a mass, sustained phenomenon, generally no one can predict. You can’t get caught up in what is going to happen tomorrow. You have to understand that you’re going to be fighting for things that may have an impact after you’re not even here.