ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) talked of the “legitimacy and the necessity of the study of reparations” for the enslavement of African Americans in a speech at the University of Michigan last week. Conyers’ speech was part of a number of events planned to celebrate Black History Month at the school.

Conyers first introduced HR-40, the “Forty Acres and a Mule Bill,” as he called it, in 1989. The bill would not implement reparations, but would develop a federal government commission, appointed by the president and Congressional leaders, to study the issue. Included in the study would be the work of academics and politicians, but also discussions of ordinary people in town hall meetings.

Conyers said that since slavery was a national issue, the repair, both economic and psychological, of the effects must also be considered a “national obligation; slavery is a national fact and ought to be treated as such, not as a personal issue.”

He also said that “no one questioned whether slaveowners ought to be compensated for the loss of their property, and the government acceded.”

This view of the legitimacy of reparations for property loss was built into the Constitution, the Fugitive Slave Laws and the reaction of wealthy whites in the South to radical reconstruction.

Rather than divide us as a nation, Conyers argued, “reparations would be helpful, they would bring healing” because they would start by “acknowledging that there was a crime against humanity.”

At the World Conference Against Racism, last September in Durban, South Africa, Bush administration representatives “refused to acknowledge that the enslavement of people is a crime – a hideous crime and a long-running crime, in the case of African Americans.” The healing process through discussion, acknowledgment and economic reparations may be unifying, in Conyers’ view.

Conyers finished his talk by critiquing the right-wing’s drive to divide working people through racial profiling of Muslim residents of the U.S., calling it “the most useless method of apprehending suspects” and that “it is still wrong, whether it is African Americans or Arabs or Muslims.”

Conyers also challenged his audience to think about the social and economic costs of Bush’s war on terrorism. Future generations are going to ask, Conyers said, “why did we cut all the social programs, why did we not provide a prescription drug benefit for seniors, why did we cut a billion dollars from Pell Grants to prosecute this war.”

We are going to find,

Conyers said, that we are “squandering huge amounts of money, claiming it goes to fight terrorism.”