‘Say the word’: Hundreds gather with N.J. social justice leaders to call for reparations bill

NJ.com's Rodrigo Torrejon reports

New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver was a bit ambivalent about Juneteenth.

For as long as she could remember, she and the Black community have celebrated the holiday commemorating June 19, 1865, the day Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas and told the last of the slaves that they were free. It was more than two years after President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves.

The holiday is a way to honor Black ancestors, remembering the pain and suffering slavery inflicted. But the work isn’t over, Oliver said.

“Me knowing the history of this country, people are going to try to make an assumption that because we have a federal holiday called Juneteenth, that African American people — the descendants of slaves — should be happy and sit down and just go away,” Oliver said on the steps of Newark City Hall.

“That is why the conversation has to shift course and the conversation has to be about reparations,” Oliver later added.

On a hot, cloudy Saturday, hundreds gathered in Newark — the Garden State’s largest city, where more than half the population identifies as Black — to celebrate Juneteenth, two days after it officially became a federal holiday and for the first time as a state holiday. And they collectively pushed for companion bills in the state Legislature that would form a task force to explore reparations for slavery.

The bills (S322/A711) would establish the New Jersey Reparations Task Force, a team that would “research, write, and publish a report” that laid out a case for state-based reparations. The bill would also “outline policy recommendations that seek to repair the harm” of slavery in New Jersey.

The task force would consist of 11 members, with at least four members recommended by social justice organizations. Three members would be appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy and eight by legislative leaders.

The rally, co-organized by the People’s Organization For Progress and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, saw spiritual and social justice leaders from all over New Jersey call on Murphy, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and state Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, to approve and sign the bill and to say the word: reparations.

“We demand reparations for the descendants of those who were enslaved in the Western Hemisphere, and in particular, those who were enslaved in the United States,” said Larry Hamm, the chair of the People’s Organization for Progress.

“The New Jersey state Legislature, after the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, nullified Lincoln’s power to emancipate slaves in this state,” Hamm added. “When it came time for the passage of the 13th Amendment, you needed a 27-state majority. New Jersey was not in the 27-state majority. Slavery was the law of the land.”

New Jersey lagged behind the rest of the nation, as the last Northern state to outlaw slavery, doing so only after the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Rep. Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic), the bill’s sponsor in the Assembly, called for those gathered to contact their state representatives and Murphy’s office to push for the bill’s passage, which she said was merely to take an unfiltered look at New Jersey’s history of complicity in slavery.

“I’m fighting in the statehouse,” Sumter said. “I’m fighting for a task force to study New Jersey’s history and role in slavery. We are No. 1 for the second year in a row for our educational system. Yet I am fighting to make sure that everyone knows New Jersey’s role in slavery.”

“We know what we need to do,” she added. “But I can’t do this work without you.”

The bill was introduced in the state Senate in January 2020, but has since stalled.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist Amiri Baraka, said even the passage of the task force bill would be a “compromise.” He said it still falls short of what New Jersey owed Black people.

“They don’t even want us to have a task force,” Baraka said. “They don’t want us to talk about it. They don’t want us to raise it. You can’t even discuss it. You can’t even bring the word up. We need to send a letter to all of them. Every last legislator. The senate president. The speaker. Everybody. And just say ‘Reparations. From the people of New Jersey.’”

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