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Slavery reparations movement rolls

Some insist blacks due compensation

NEW YORK -- Advocates who say black Americans should be compensated for slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath are quietly chalking up victories and gaining momentum.

Fueled by the work of scholars and lawyers, their campaign has morphed in recent years from a fringe-group rallying cry into a sophisticated, mainstream movement. Most recently, a pair of churches apologized for their part in the slave trade, and one is studying ways to repay black church members.

The overall issue is hardly settled, even among black Americans: Some say that focusing on slavery shouldn't be a top priority or that it doesn't make sense to compensate people generations after a historical wrong.

Yet reparations efforts have led a number of cities and states to approve measures that force businesses to publicize their historical ties to slavery. Several reparations court cases are in progress, and international human rights officials are increasingly spotlighting the issue.

``This matter is growing in significance rather than declining," said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and a leading reparations activist. ``It has more vigor and vitality in the 21st century than it's had in the history of the reparations movement."

The most recent victories for reparations advocates came in June, when the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church both apologized for owning slaves and promised to battle current racism.

The Episcopalians also launched a national, yearslong probe into church slavery links and into whether the church should compensate black members. A white church member, Katrina Browne, also screened a documentary focusing on white culpability at the denomination's national assembly.

The Episcopalians debated slavery and reparations for years before reaching an agreement, said Jayne Oasin, social justice officer for the denomination, who will oversee its work on the issue.

Historically, slavery was an uncomfortable topic for the church. Some Episcopal bishops owned slaves -- and the Bible was used to justify the practice, Oasin said.

``Why not [take these steps] 100 years ago?" she said. ``Let's talk about the complicity of the Episcopal Church as one of the institutions of this country who, of course, benefited from slavery."

Also in June, a North Carolina commission urged the state government to repay the descendants of victims of a violent 1898 campaign by white supremacists to strip blacks of power in Wilmington, N.C. As many as 60 blacks died and thousands were driven from the city.

The commission also recommended state-funded programs to support local black businesses and home ownership.

The report came weeks after the Organization of American States requested information from the US government about the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which 1,200 homes were burned and as many as 300 blacks killed. An OAS official said the group might pursue the issue as a violation of international human rights.

The modern reparations movement revived an idea that has been around since emancipation, when black leaders argued that newly freed slaves deserved compensation.

About six years ago, the issue started gaining momentum again. Randall Robinson's ``The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," was a best seller; reparations became a central issue at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa; and California legislators passed the nation's first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003 and in 2004 Iowa legislators began requesting -- but not forcing -- the same disclosures.

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