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Breaking the Chain

To Charles Ogletree and Randall Robinson, the legacy of slavery still haunts the African-American community and the United States itself. Reparations, they say, will help finally close the book on the country's most shameful chapter.

When Charles Ogletree Jr. '78 was up for tenure at Harvard Law School, he served as legal counsel to Anita Hill during confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court. Clearly Ogletree is not dissuaded by Charles Ogletreecontroversy, no more than were Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, or Justice Thurgood Marshall, whose likenesses adorn the walls of his Harvard Law School office. Now the HLS Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and head of the School's Clinical Programs, Ogletree today champions a cause that ignites passion and unleashes bitterness, at the same time as it rides on hopes of racial healing.

The issue is slavery reparations. Its supporters argue that 246 years of slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow laws, and continuing discrimination have taken their toll on the African-American community. They point to pervasive disparities between African-Americans and other Americans in areas including health care, education, and employment. It's a time when governments are apologizing and making amends for past wrongs--as the German, Austrian, and Swiss governments did for Jews who suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and as the U.S. government did with Japanese-Americans who were interned during World War II.

Ogletree and Randall Robinson '70--an architect of the current reparations movement--have brought together a group of lawyers, academics, and activists to "do what we think has never been done before," said Ogletree, "to try to engage in a comprehensive assessment of slavery, its impact on African-Americans, and whether or not there are any lingering bases for actual claims of restitution for slaves and descendants of slaves."

The group is called the Reparations Coordinating Committee, and Ogletree said "an amazing series of possible actions" is slated for early next year.

Robinson, in his impassioned argument for reparations, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, calls slavery "a human rights crime without parallel in the modern world. For it produces its victims, ad infinitum, long after the active stage of the crime has ended." He writes that, without reparations, "there is no chance that America can solve its racial problems--if solving these problems means, as I believe it must, closing the yawning economic gap between blacks and whites."

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