Chapter Eight: The Debt
James Forman stepped into The Riverside Church in Harlem clutching a cane in one hand and a copy of his "Black Manifesto" in the other. It was May 4, 1969, and the mostly white congregation - 1,500 voices strong - was singing the Sunday service's opening hymn, "When Morning Gilds the Skies."

As the final strains of the church organ faded, Forman made his move, climbing the six chancel steps, turning around to face the stunned congregation and issuing his demands in a slow and forceful voice.

The veteran civil rights activist wanted $500 million from religious institutions for the mistreatment of blacks during and since slavery, as well as free office space for his organization, including unlimited long-distance telephone calls.

He gave the church a week to come up with a suitable down payment.

Forman got his picture in the papers the next day, but he didn't get much more. His critics - far more focused on his tactics than his message - denounced the demonstration as an act of "intimidation," "invasion" and "blackmail." In time, Forman moved on to other battle fronts. The media moved on to other stories. And the concept of reparations slipped from the nation's conscience.

For more than 100 years that has been the fate of those who have pondered whether African Americans - past, present or both - are owed compensation for the horror and the legacy of slavery.

It's an idea dating at least to the closing days of the Civil War, when freed slaves were offered - and then denied - the iconic 40 acres and a mule. But for most of its history, the idea of reparations for black Americans has been perceived as a quest that spanned only that limited portion of the political spectrum between the radical fringe and the lunatic fringe.

Not anymore.

The reparations movement - and only of late has it grown to something that could fairly be called a movement - is suddenly a hot and serious topic from barbershops to university classrooms to the Capitol dome to that most inescapable of forums: the federal courthouse.

Earlier this year, a group of high-profile lawyers sued Aetna Inc., FleetBoston Financial Corp. and railroad giant CSX Corp., seeking profits the companies allegedly earned from their participation - or, at least, complicity - in the slave trade. Aetna endorsed the concept of human bondage by selling plantation owners insurance policies covering slaves. Fleet Bank took over Providence Bank, which financed slave-trading expeditions. And CSX was sued because predecessor railroad lines were "constructed or run, at least in part, by slave labor."

Similar lawsuits in the past garnered mostly snickers. This one was front-page news.

A second salvo was fired earlier this month, when suits were brought against a variety of tobacco, textile, railroad and financial-services companies. The defendants are not the only companies entwined in slavery, which was the law in much of the land until 1865. But just as the lawsuit is partly symbolic, so are the companies, standing for an endless roster of firms, North and South, dirtied by slavery.

Paying for sins of the past

Proponents of reparations look at America - from George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, from the textile barons to the ivory cutters, from Yale University to The Hartford Courant - and see a land whose individuals, industries and institutions got rich off the exploited labor of their kidnapped ancestors.

Now, they say, it's payback time.

Even as public sentiment seems to turn against decades of affirmative action, the reparations question has curiously elbowed its way out of the shadows and struck a chord with mainstream black America.

Studies suggest that about two-thirds of blacks favor reparations in some form while, in another stark example of the yawning racial divide in this country, nearly 90 percent of whites oppose them.

Even proponents of reparations lack unanimity, with vastly different arguments, approaches and solutions. Some want a recommitment to education and employment programs for blacks. Some want a slave museum and an airing of the nation's complicity in the slave trade and the repression of black advancement. Others want money, measuring the debt in the millions, billions, even trillions of dollars.

But virtually all agree that simply provoking a debate on the merits of reparations will help the country, if not to come to terms with, then at least to face a shameful past.