Two days before the national holiday celebrating his birth, the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. filled the Community Baptist Church:
“It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself up by his bootstraps, but it is a cruel jest to a bootless man that he should lift himself up by his bootstraps.”
To the 100 or so sitting in the chapel, his words were the unequivocal endorsement of reparations, a nascent but ever-widening cause in New Haven — particularly since the recent publication of a report about ties between slavery and Yale, the city’s largest employer.
At the community forum held by the New Haven Reparations Coalition on Saturday, the highly anticipated keynote speaker was to be U.S. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat. In 1989, Conyers first introduced the H.R. 40 resolution, which if passed would create a national commission to study slavery and the possibility of reparations.
But Conyers was unable to speak due to a scheduling conflict, and those in attendance instead heard a speech from Martin Luther King Jr., delivered four days before his assassination, in addition to the originally planned speakers, including Akbar Muhammad, a minister with the Nation of Islam.
“In the 19th century the struggle was for freedom. In the 20th century the struggle was for civil rights,” said the Rev. Eric Smith, the president of the New Haven Reparations Coalition. “Now, in the 21st century, the struggle is for reparations for the wrongs that were committed against us.”
The coalition is working to form a task force to determine New Haven’s top five employers’ roles in promoting slavery, after which the group plans to “quantify the economic impact of their slave-related activities.”
“This is going to be a fight. This is going to be a struggle,” said Scot X. Esdaile, the president of the Greater New Haven Chapter of the NAACP. “It’s not going to be easy — but we must be ready to endure the struggle.”
The New Haven Reparations Coalition has already requested reparations from Yale. They have asked that the University change the title of residential college master to something “more culturally sensitive”; rename the colleges that are named after supporters of slavery; form a scholarship for African-American high school graduates; offer loans for African-American owned businesses, both profit and non-profit; and expand its Homebuyer Program to include all African-American New Haven residents.
University Chaplain Jerry Streets and Michael Morand, the associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs, have been meeting with the reparations coalition since last fall.
Morand said Yale has programs in place, such as the Homebuyer Program and various educational opportunities for New Haven public school students, that produce a “positive impact for people of all races.”
Both Morand and Smith said they anticipate further discussion of the coalition’s demands.
“I am appalled at the way in which the issue of slavery is swept under the rug,” said Andrea Cole of the Connecticut Center for a New Economy. “We need to come to terms with it.”