Tuesday, July 12, 2005

MILWAUKEE — The NAACP will target private companies as part of its economic agenda, seeking reparations from corporations with historical ties to slavery and boycotting companies that refuse to participate in its annual business diversity report card.

“Absolutely, we will be pursuing reparations from companies that have historical ties to slavery and engaging all parties to come to the table,” Dennis C. Hayes, interim president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said yesterday at the group’s 96th annual convention here.

“Many of the problems we have now including poverty, disparities in health care and incarcerations can be directly tied to slavery.”

The group’s strategy will include a lobbying effort to encourage cities to enact laws requiring businesses to complete an extensive slavery study and submit it to the city before they can get a city contract.

Such laws exist in Philadelphia and Chicago, which can refuse to grant contracts because of a company’s slavery ties although neither city has done this. Detroit and New Orleans are considering similar bills.

“We need legislation with teeth,” Adjoa Aiyetoro, professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s school of law, said during a session on reparations.

She said two banks trying to do business with Chicago have recently apologized for their role in slavery and promised to make amends by offering scholarships to blacks and money for other education projects that benefit blacks.

J.P. Morgan Chase Bank recently completed an examination of its history and found that two financial institutions it absorbed years ago — Citizens Bank and Canal Bank in Louisiana — had owned more than 1,250 black people until the Civil War, procured as collateral on defaulted loans.

The company apologized and officials said it will start a $5 million scholarship program for children in Louisiana.

Wachovia Corp. was accused by a Chicago alderman of lying last month when it submitted its statement in January stating it had no knowledge of any involvement with slavery. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company later apologized and indicated that it would create an education fund or contribute money toward black history education.

“They did the right thing in acknowledging it and taking the first step forward towards mutual understanding,” Mr. Hayes said.

And while private institutions are making slavery amends, NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond said the federal government probably never will, citing the recent Senate resolution of apology for not passing anti-lynching bills, which eight senators did not sign.

“If [lynching] is not a horrific enough of a reason to apologize, then what is?” Mr. Bond said in his keynote address.

The Rev. Wayne Perryman of Mount Calvary Christian Center Church of God in Christ agreed that pursuing the federal government is not a fruitful option. The Seattle minister has filed two reparations lawsuits against the Democratic Party, saying its role in defending slavery and opposing civil rights bills during the Jim Crow era deserves an apology.

“One of the problems in courts is that … you have to show … the government official who participated in it,” Mr. Perryman said. “With the federal government the real problem is that it has never had a totally pro-slavery position, the Democrats did and supported it, while the abolitionists and Republicans did not.”

James Lide, director of the international division at History Associates Inc., a Rockville firm that researches old records, said determining how many U.S. businesses are linked to slavery depends upon definition.

Almost every business has at least an indirect link to slavery, he said. For example, some railroad and Southern utility companies can trace their roots to businesses that used slave labor. Textile companies, for example, use cotton that was grown on Southern plantations.

“There’s never going to be a solid number because the idea of how you connect a company to slavery is more a political one than a historical one,” Mr. Lide said.

During an event on economic inequality, Mr. Hayes said the NAACP will lobby other localities and begin protesting and/or boycotting companies that refuse to participate in its annual business diversity report card survey.

The organization has surveyed the lodging, telecommunications, financial services, retailing and automotive industries for almost a decade. Many companies refuse to participate, particularly from the merchandising industry.

“We don’t plan to allow them to continue to enjoy our African-American dollars while they continue to ignore us,” said Nelson Rivers, chairman of the NAACP economic development committee.

This year’s report card measured 55 companies on their efforts. Taken together, four industries got a C grade. Retail got a D, largely because five of the 11 companies examined did not respond to the NAACP’s request for information, getting an automatic F.

• Chris Baker contributed to this report from Washington.

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