Imari Obadele: The Father of the Modern Reparations Movement
By Robert C. Smith , Africana.com, 1 June 2000
The issue of reparations has received increased attention in the last several months. Local and state legislative bodies have taken up the issue; articles have appeared in leading newspapers and magazines; it has been a topic of lively debate on the Internet and local and national television and radio programs; and Randall Robinson’s TransAfrica conducted a nationally televised symposium on the subject. Also, The Boston Globe reports that Harvard’s much publicized “dream team” of African American intellectuals is considering legal and legislative actions to secure reparations.
In virtually all of this discussion, hardly any mention has been made of Imari Obadele, the individual who probably should be described as the father of the modern reparations movement.
That Obadele’s work has been ignored is not surprising, given how the mainstream media, black and white, covers African American politics. This coverage is frequently uninformed and almost always biased and myopic, focusing mainly on the familiar disputes between black liberals and conservatives and black Democrats and Republicans, while ignoring – relegating to the fringes – the powerful tradition of nationalism in the black community’s politics.
Bishop Henry M. Turner was the first African American leader to call for reparations. He did so near the end of the Reconstruction era. The Nation of Islam has, since its inception, called for reparations, and the Republic of New Africa (RNA), organized by Obadele and his Malcolm X Society associates in 1968, demanded payment of $400 billion in “slavery damages.” However, the modern movement for reparations did not take organizational form until 1988, when Obadele and his associates formed the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA).
NCOBRA initiates litigation, publishes a newsletter and sponsors national and regional conferences. Professor Obadele gave the closing argument in a mock trial at Bethune-Cookman College in 1998, where a bi-racial jury voted to award reparations. At its tenth annual convention held in St. Louis in June 1999, NCOBRA adopted the “Six Down-Payment Demands on the U.S. Government,” which demanded that a billion dollars each be given to ten black colleges, that a billion dollars be placed in a black economic development fund, that $20,000 be awarded to each black family, that a billion dollars be given to black farmers, and that all “political prisoners” be released. For more information, visit the NCOBRA website.
Imari Obadele is currently a professor of political science at Prairie View A & M University, where he has been on the faculty since 1990. A leading scholar of nationalism, Obadele served for twenty years as Provisional President of RNA and is currently a member of the group’s national legislative council. The principal aim of the RNA since its formation has been the organization of a plebiscite among African Americans in order to determine whether they would wish to form an independent nation-state within the current boundaries of the United States. Professor Obadele has written extensively on the right of blacks under prevailing standards of international law to have been accorded after the Civil War the opportunity to choose independent nation-state status rather than forcible incorporation into the United States.
In August of 1971, as part of its COINTELPRO program to “expose, disrupt and otherwise neutralize” black nationalist and other radical organizations, the FBI conducted a pre-dawn raid on the Jackson, Mississippi headquarters of the RNA. In the ensuing gun battle, a Jackson police officer was killed and an FBI agent and another policeman were wounded. Obadele and several other RNA officials were sentenced to long prison terms. He spent nearly five years behind bars, but as a result of national grassroots mobilization and a legal campaign, he was eventually freed. He immediately resumed his leadership work in the RNA.
But he also decided to combine his life of activism with scholarship, enrolling at Temple University where he earned a BA in 1981, a Master’s in 1982 and a Ph.D in 1985. His areas of specialization include American government, constitutional law, international relations and African American politics. Before joining the faculty at Prairie View, Obadele taught at William Paterson College and the College of Wooster.
A prolific scholar, Professor Obadele has written three textbooks, co-edited two volumes (including The Forty Acres Documents, an important reference source on reparations) and in 1984 authored Free The Land, an autobiographical account of his work in the RNA during the 1970s.
I recently spoke to Imari Obadele.
Q: When did you first become active in the black freedom struggle?
A: I grew up in Philadelpha, Pennsylvania, and managed to join the Boy Scouts at 11, in 1941. My brother Milton, a Lincoln University student, had joined the 99th Pursuit Squadron to begin training as a radio operator. He was commissioned by the Signal Corps as a second lieutenant and then went on to become a fighter pilot. Milton was one of the leading black officers who fought against the discriminatory impositions suffered by black officers, including the inability to be admitted to officers’ clubs on various bases, the frequent refusals of white enlisted men to salute black officers. He took his complaints to Air Force Headquarters at Mitchell Field, New York, and was ultimately court-martialed and given an “other than honorable” discharge. He completed work at Lincoln University without the GI Bill, was then refused admission at Temple University Law School, but was admitted to Yale Law School, from which he graduated in 1947 and subsequently passed the Michigan bar.
As teenagers, myself and my neighborhood buddies, as Explorer Scouts, avidly followed Milton’s struggle as it was reported in the Pittsburgh Courier and other Afro-American national newspapers. His dauntless struggle — particularly as he continued his fight against racism when he returned home — inspired all of us, including myself, to make a commitment to ending our people’s oppression and injustice. In Philadelphia in those early years Milton and I were instrumental in forming a Civil Rights group, which brought W.E.B. Du Bois to town, and which also led to an effort to create a boycott against the segregation in the U.S. military. This case — with Devreaux Tomlinson of Philadelphia as main plaintiff — never went to trial, but we believe that Truman’s order to integrate the army in terms of units (not within units), as the Korean War began in the summer of 1950, was a response to this campaign.
Q: What led you to conclude that an independent state is the optimum outcome of the black freedom struggle in the United States?
A: My brothers Milton Henry and Lawrence Henry (a freelance news reporter and photographer) met with Malcolm X and shortly before King’s “March on Washington” introduced me to the brother. The Detroit organization which we had formed, a civil and economic rights group called “The Group on Advanced Leadership” (GOAL), invited Malcolm X and others involved in the rights movement to speak for us in Detroit. Here he made his formidable “Message To The Grassroots” speech.
This was a turning point in my political life. I was married with four children and employed at the U.S. Tank-Automotive Command as a technical writer, and attending classes at Wayne State University when I could. GOAL was peopled by many persons, some of whom have become educators and political luminaries in Detroit. Malcolm’s speech was early November 1963. Kennedy was killed two weeks later, and Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation of Islam, suspended Malcolm for having commented that “the chickens have come home to roost.” Milton and myself and others in Detroit, and armed brothers in Brooklyn and the Los Angeles area, who were followers of Malcolm but not members of the Nation of Islam, became Malcolm’s support, though we failed to stop his 1965 assassination.
Within three years our Malcolm X Society had called a “Black Government Conference” in Detroit and established a Provisional Government, named the unfree nation as the Republic of New Africa, and charged the Provisional Government with leading the struggle for independence of the Republic. The Declaration of Independence was signed 31 March 1968, the same Sunday that Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election as President of the United States. Robert Williams, in exile in China, was named our first President. Milton was named First Vice President and Betty Shabazz was named second Vice President. I was named Minister of Information.
Q: How do you respond to critics who say the idea of an independent black nation-state is a fantasy — completely unrealistic — because it is not desired by most blacks, and not achievable even if desired?
A: Our effort is to recruit those who do believe that creating a state as independent as Canada is possible and will work to achieve it. People have a right to believe it is a fantasy. But what’s new? The United States and its institutions have worked to make all of our people believe that because of the Fourteenth Amendment we have been “made” into U.S. citizens. Even many Black professors refuse to write in their books or teach their classes that New African people — persons born in the United States and descended from Africans once held in slavery — had and have after the Thirteenth Amendment the right to political self-determination.
We should have been asked — as a group and individually — what we wanted to choose as our political future. Instead, the United States, which theretofore had refused the application of the Rule of Jus Soli [an ancient legal standard that tied citizenship to place of birth] to Africans born in America, assumed that they could deny us the right to self-determination when they passed the Thirteenth Amendment and, then, passing the Fourteenth Amendment two-and-a-half years later, could impose the Rule of Jus Soli upon us. The most modest count indicates that over nine percent of our 40 million population desire independence today, despite the years of U.S. brainwashing. Time and events will bring the reality to the rest of us. The key is information and choice.
Q: Given your long-time involvement in the reparations struggle, what do you think of the recently highly publicized efforts of Randall Robinson and others?
A: Mr. Robinson’s book [The Debt: What America Owes Blacks] has helped to make reparations a household word, coming after ten years of struggle by NCOBRA. Those who are joining the fight will emphasize, we trust, the importance of the 27-odd chapters across the country continuing their consultations with Black organizations everywhere to decide the forms of reparations and establish elected local organs to deal with the collective aspects of the payment, economic development, education, and release of people from jail based on reviews by elected community parole boards.
Q: What’s your thinking on the Africa-based initiatives led by the OAU and Ali Mazrui? Are there connections, coordination between the African American and African initiatives? If not, should there be?
A: We in America and our people throughout the diaspora must work together. NCOBRA is involved in this work.
Q: Also, to what extent is there communications or coordination between NCOBRA, Robinson and other activists who have recently embraced the cause? A: NCOBRA is a mass-based organization, which includes members like Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists, the National Conference of Black Lawyers. The NAACP has passed a resolution asking chapters to work with NCOBRA.
Q: Some blacks say that while reparations are owed it is not likely that the debt will be paid, and that a highly visible national debate on the issue will be racially divisive (a 1997 poll found that while 65% of blacks supported reparations, it was opposed by 88% of whites) and in the long run harmful to blacks. What’s your judgment?
A: Many New African people, unfortunately, must have our souls repaired and appreciate our history. We have always achieved things that were supposed to be impossible. The United States will do what all countries do: They pay when they MUST, when paying is the best alternative to what else they face. What is this about racial divisiveness? We are supposed to allow a nation of thieves, the whites, to remain comfortable with the wealth and rectitude stolen from us?
Q: At this point, where do you see the movement going in the next several years?
A: Movements reach critical points. In the next several years, reparations will be won and we will begin to use the proceeds in the best manner to repair ourselves as a people and once more provide black genius to the world.
Robert C. Smith is a professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University. He has written extensively on African American politics and has published numerous books, including Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era (SUNY, 1995), We Have No Leaders (SUNY, 1996), and African American Leadership (SUNY, 1999).
Copyright (c) 2000 Africana.com, Inc.
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