Her grass-roots efforts shaped the conversation and presented a path forward.
The reparations hearings in the House of Representatives last week turned contentious as experts such as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates traded barbs with politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The bill at the heart of the hearings, H.R. 40, first introduced by Rep. John Conyers Jr. in 1989, would create a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for descendants of slaves.
While Conyers should be lauded for his original efforts to introduce this legislation, this month’s hearings would not be possible without Audley “Queen Mother” Moore, the founder of the modern reparations movement. Indeed, black women have been at the center of the push for reparations for more than a century. Excluding them from the reparations debate blinds us to the multifaceted modern movement. It also runs the risk of omitting some of the most generative and inventive reparations proposals developed to date.
The debate over reparations is not new. Since the Civil War, black Americans have been imploring the federal government to rectify years of racial terror and prejudice. Some followed Callie House, an ex-slave turned reparations organizer who formed the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association to mobilize freed men and women to lobby Congress for pensions and land in the late 1800s. Others called on the federal government to make good on Special Field Order No. 15, a short-lived Civil War-era law that redistributed confiscated Confederate land to former slaves in 40-acre plots. By the turn of the century, the phrase “40 acres and a mule” became a catchall term for reparations claims.
If House created the reparations movement, Moore modernized and popularized it. Born in 1898, Moore dedicated her nearly century-long life to black liberation. She spent her girlhood in New Iberia, La., and New Orleans, places known for a precarious balance of racial violence and defiant black communities. For Moore, everyday life in turn-of-the-century Jim Crow foregrounded the modern iterations of slavery and Jim Crow.
As Moore came of age in the 1920s and ‘30s, she soon realized that the promises of equality, security and due process, backed by constitutional amendments, were nonetheless out of reach for most black Americans. They were instead replaced by total social and cultural separation, educational and housing segregation and the expulsion of black folks from economic life and advancement. By the 1950s, Moore took action, boldly declaring that “somebody has to pay” for the past and present atrocities black people faced.
For most of her life, Moore was a rare if not singular voice in the call for reparations. From 1955 until her death in 1997, she consistently produced tangible models for how the federal government might reconcile and redress the atrocities of slavery. These efforts led to a sustained organizing career that included petition drives for bills like H.R. 40, reparations pamphlets and a speaking tour. She also engaged in extensive grass-roots education efforts, introducing a wide range of activists, politicians and lawyers, such as Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree Jr., to the importance and viability of reparations claims.
In the 1950s, Moore founded or organized multiple grass-roots groups, including the National Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Observance Committee and Reparations Committee Inc. As the leader of these groups, Moore engaged in widespread organizing to collect signatures for a petition to compel the federal government to take up the issue of reparations and formulate a repayment plan. Undergirding each of these efforts was the claim that black people were due recompense for the systematic denial of their 13th, 14th and 15th amendment rights for over a century under Jim Crow.
In each of these mid-century petitions, Moore suggested that the government pay a predetermined amount to the descendants of slaves, with no restrictions on how that money was spent. In Moore’s vision, reparations worked best when each recipient could use the funds to repair and advance their lives as they saw fit. She staunchly opposed trickle-down approaches, such as plans for black churches or for a small committee composed of the black elite to be in charge of lobbying for, collecting and distributing federal funds.
Her ideas sparked reparations activism across the country, especially in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. By 1963, she had collected enough signatures take her petitions to the White House in an effort to meet with President John F. Kennedy.
While the Kennedy administration was resistant to reparations, Moore’s ideas about repayment gained traction with black-power activists in the 1960s. Many of the era’s organizers identify Moore as a key figure in shaping Malcom X’s position on reparations. She was also a mentor to other activists in groups such as the Black Panther Party and Revolutionary Action Movement, both of which embedded a call for reparations in their organizational architecture.
Moore also published widely on the issue of reparations. Her best-known piece was “Why Reparations?” a 1963 pamphlet that offered one of the most extensive enumerations of the horrors black people endured during and after slavery, as well as an extensive survey of other countries’ payments of reparations claims. Readers and organizers were especially drawn to her plan for action. She argued that “the descendants of American Slaves must be given preferential treatment … with immediate hiring on a quota basis in every level of [American] industry,” along with job training and education. Similar to the 40-acres-and-a-mule model, Moore’s plan would offer black Americans an entry into the American economy — a gateway to better housing, education, health care and wealth.
As she aged, she pushed the next generation to take up the mantle of reparations. She was a figurehead of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), a group founded in 1987 to broaden support for the modern reparations movement that Moore created. A collection of lawyers, historians, activists and politicians, N’COBRA continues to be the primary lobbying group in support of H.R. 40 since Conyers introduced it in 1989.
Moore remained a vital part of N’COBRA until her death. One of her last public appearances was at its national convention in 1994. A “solemn hush,” described the Associated Press, fell over the crowd as her caregivers wheeled 96-year-old Moore onto the stage to speak. Tearfully, and in what AP called a “barely audible, husky voice,” Moore proclaimed: “Reparations, reparations … keep on. Keep on. We’ve got to win!”
Moore’s career shows how reparations have been a malleable concept, one already endorsed by the federal government, conceived of broadly by the black community and supported by everyone from leftist radicals to grass-roots organizers to black lawyers and politicians. Her capacious concept of a reparations movement offered numerous entry points for interested parties and is responsible for fostering the momentum that led to the hearings last week.
As the H.R. 40 debate progresses, we find ourselves in a moment of social division, in which an attempt to force the federal government to reckon with its historical atrocities seems both incredibly urgent and profoundly difficult. Far more than simply a hearing or an exploratory bill, the debate over reparations is a conversation about the American government’s critical reckoning with its racist foundation to move to a more productive and united future.
Black women like Moore have been offering viable paths for years. It’s time we explore their plans and put their work at the center of our debates over reparations.
Ashley D. Farmer is an assistant professor of history and African & African diaspora studies at the University of Texas-Austin. She is the author of “Remaking Black Power: How Black Women Transformed an Era” and the forthcoming biography, “Queen Mother Audley Moore: Mother of Black Nationalism.”