Editor's note: February is Black History Month, a time to reflect on the history, teachings and achievements of African-Americans. Writer Mary Dickieson recently sat down with Prof. Clarence Munford, History, to discuss issues vital to African-Americans today. Munford, a faculty member at Guelph for 33 years, is the author of numerous publications, including a three-volume history of black enslavement in the French West Indies and the 1996 book Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the 21st Century. A companion book to Race and Reparations is scheduled for publication in 2000. In 1995, Munford was honoured when U of G students opened the Munford Centre on campus to provide a focal point for anti-racism and race relations resources and a drop-in centre for students.
For millions of people around the world, the postwar civil rights movement in the United States is defined by the passionate words of Martin Luther King: "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed - we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal."
King spoke those words in 1963 at the end of a day of peaceful demonstrations in Washington, D.C. The March for Jobs and Freedom drew 250,000 people in support of pending civil-rights legislation, but it was another full year before the Civil Rights Act legally ended segregation and two years before the Voting Rights Act made it possible for all black Americans to register to vote. Five years after sharing his dream of brotherhood between whites and blacks, King was assassinated while still working to make those legislated rights a reality in every part of the United States.
During the annual celebration of King's January birthday, U of G history professor Clarence Munford spoke at Toronto's Metro Hall and shared his own dream for the 21st century. "It is time to update King's speech and the content of his dream," says Munford.
"Martin Luther King led a vital struggle against petty apartheid North American style - school segregation, equal access to public facilities, voting rights and access and prompt service in restaurants. But one generation after his assassination, the formal access to public facilities can no longer be the target of black communal effort - nor should it be. We now have that access, at least in legislation. Today we are not seeking equality. Now we seek parity."
Munford works with a U.S.-based organization called N'COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, which is trying to provide African-Americans with an economic and social foundation that will protect the anti-discrimination legislation and make it possible for blacks to benefit fully from political participation. N'COBRA is focused on a new "social advantage" movement. "We think we must mobilize blacks to make a commitment to reparations - payment of the inheritance due to us for the labour of our ancestors," he says.
The professor has more than a historian's interest in the institution of slavery. Born and raised in Ohio, Munford traces his mother's ancestors to the plantations of Louisiana and his father's family to enslavement in Alabama. He has lived in Canada since 1966, however, joining U of G after completing an academic trail that began at Cleveland's Western Reserve University, then took him to the University of Leipzig in Germany for a PhD, then to the University of Nigeria as a faculty member.
During his years at Guelph, Munford has maintained close connections to family members in the United States and an active involvement in the ongoing civil rights struggles of blacks in many countries.
On the international scene, Munford is an active participant, with other historians, legal scholars, social scientists and psychologists, in the preparation of legislative recommendations and a legal brief in regards to U.S. Bill HR 40. Introduced by Detroit congressman John Conyers Jr., the bill would acknowledge the fundamental injustice of slavery in the United States and create a commission to examine the resulting economic and racial discrimination against African-Americans and the impact of these forces on those still living in the United States. The commission would also make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies, which N'COBRA economists say should include reparations as high as $10 trillion US.
The following are excerpts from the interview with Munford, in which he talks about the basis of the black reparations movement and his belief that it is time for western civilization to pay the debt owed to African-Americans.
"In modern history, which for black people begins in 1441, we lost 100 million lives through violence inflicted by the slave trade. Thousands more were taken from their homes to enslavement in the western hemisphere, where they and succeeding generations worked their entire lives without payment for that work. What would be owed to us, using the true capitalist principle of the right of inheritance?
"The value of the accrued wages of Africans enslaved in the United States, plus interest, has been estimated at anywhere from $5 trillion to $10 trillion US. This debt does not count the other billions of dollars that may have been lost to blacks in the last 130 years through segregation and reduced job opportunities due to racial discrimination. Nor does it count the additional debts owed to the descendants of slavery in other countries - the West Indies, for example, where thousands were enslaved.
"One example of the impact of racial discrimination lies in the 10-to-one ratio between the home ownership assets of whites and blacks in the United States. The average equity in home real estate is $42,000 for whites and just over $4,000 for blacks. A contributing factor to this discrimination was the U.S. government's post-war policy that offered low-cost mortgages to whites to enable them to move from the inner cities to the suburbs, while those mortgages were denied blacks. Yet black people in the United States helped pay for those government subsidies through their taxes. We helped pay for the better schools built in the suburbs and the better teaching and resources enjoyed by white children.
"We feel the only way to acquire entrance to the future and build a social foundation that will enable us to enjoy the political and legal rights we have won is to initiate some form of reparations. It's time for western governments to ante up.
"We promote a massive fund for black education that will raise the educational level of black children to that of the white middle class.
"Since the Depression, black unemployment has averaged two to 2½ times the unemployment rate among whites. Reparations will help equalize employment opportunities through education and black ownership of meaningful black assets. "Part of the dream is access to credit to encourage black ownership of business ventures. We want 15 to 20 per cent of the black labour force to be able to find a job and build a career in a black-owned business. Currently, less than one per cent of the black labour force in the United States works for black-owned firms.
"Supporters of the reparations movement do not expect overnight success - Bill HR 40 has been voted down each year for nearly a decade - but we see this as a crisis that western civilization must address.
"Reparations would not be paid by individual white people, but by western governments, which have already set a precedent of using reparations to achieve some atonement for the atrocities of past governments. Some European countries have made reparations to the survivors of the five-year Jewish Holocaust. Both the United States and Canada have given an apology and payments to Japanese citizens who were interned during the Second World War, and both countries have provided compensation to native populations who were robbed of their land and their culture. But African-Americans have a 500-year-old debt that remains unpaid.
"The reparations movement is a worldwide movement. There is a reparations office in Nigeria, and the Organization of African Unity has gone on record as supporting reparation. There is a Pan-African movement, and voices are chiming in from Brazil. In Canada, there is growing interest among the country's predominantly African-Caribbean black community.
"The discussion surrounding reparations is different in every country where the black descendants of slaves live. The issue is far too complicated for an adequate representation here, but at its core is the belief among black people that our ancestors' debts are yet to be collected. And that payment of those debts would provide the resources needed to prepare African-Americans today for the demands of the future."
For more information on N'COBRA, visit the organization's Web site at www.ncobra.com. For information about Black History Month activities at U of G, call Ext. 2629.