Lionel Jean-Baptiste wasn’t surprised when a white federal judge dismissed a lawsuit in July that had asked corporations to pay for past dealings in slavery. But Jean-Baptiste, the lead attorney for the descendent of slaves who had brought the case, didn’t expect that, in addition to exhaustive legal arguments, U.S. District Judge Charles R. Norgle would share his personal view that reparations to slaves have already been paid. And that’s what has left Jean-Baptiste intent on pushing forward-even as other observers declare the decision a major setback for the reparations movement.
“He did a lot of research, but he spun the history of the fight of Africans in this country to gain their rights in a way that met his needs,” sad Jean-Baptiste. The lawsuit was brought to federal court in Chicago in 2002. Nineteen plaintiffs from across the country accused Aetna, CSX, JP Morgan Chase and 14 other companies of “unjust enrichment” and crimes against humanity, noting how the firms’ predecessors had owned, traded, insured or transported enslaved Africans. The suit asked the firms to disclose all of their involvement in slavery, set up a trust fund and pay an unspecified amount of restitution-making it the first major litigation to press private corporations for slavery reparations.
In response, the companies asked Norgle to dismiss the case, arguing that they shouldn’t be held accountable for something that happened more than a century ago. The iUdge agreed with them. In early 2004, he ruled that the plaintiffs needed to show how they had personally suffered from the actions of the companies. Questions involving the historical and political rights or groups of people were matters for Congress, not the courts, he wrote. And he ruled that too much time had passed for the claims to move forward.
Norgle dismissed the case “without prejudice”-meaning that the plaintiffs could submit their suit again. They did, but their new complaint, filed in April 2004, wasn’t that that different. While several of the plaintiffs were by this time the official representatives of their families’ estates, and their attorneys argued that a legal principle known as “replevin” entitled them to property that had once been taken unjustly, they still didn’t show specific ties to the corporations.
On July 6, 2005, Norgle threw out the suit again, this time “with prejudice,” or for good. Like the plaintiffs, he didn’t change his legal reasoning the second time around. But he did devote more space to declaring his own views on reparations, arguing they’ve already been paid through the Civil War and subsequent legislation.
“Union soldiers, sailors and marines gave their lives on bloody battlefields and the sea,” Norgle wrote in the summary to his latest dismissal. “Generations of Americans were burdened with paying the social, political and financial costs of this horrific War,” Norgle concluded: “The sensitive ear had heard the collective “thank you” from those who were freed, as well as the historic apologies in words and deeds from persons of good will for the evils of slavery.”
Reparations activist Conrad Worrill, head of the national Black United Front that organized demonstrations and packed the federal courtroom for the hearings, says he’s been hearing this argument from reparations foes for years. “Unfortunately, a lot of people under this system of white supremacy have the same view—’you ought to be glad that you’re freed’ and ‘It’s over and done with,”‘ said Worrill.
Andrew McGaan, an attorney for the defendants, said Norgle’s decision confirmed that the reparations debate shouldn’t be waged in court. “There have been lawsuits filed in the past claiming reparations in one shape or form and no;ne have been successful,” he said. “Federal court is not a forum for resolving everything that’s wrong with society, or for resolving social problems. This is not a political position—it’s constitutional law.”
He didn’t interpret the ruling as a political or philosophical statement on the reparations movement; Norgle’s discussion of the Civil War and civil rights law was simply intended to show that the issue belongs before Congress and the president, according to McGaan. the 1940’s and 1950’s before winning that victory.
Research teams are busy trying to find specific connections between companies and the families of former slaves, the activists say. Meanwhile, the city of Chicago and several other municipalities now require firms that win public contracts to research and report any slavery links. And this fall’s rally in Washington celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the first Million Man March will be dedicated in part to reparations.