(RNS) — More than 200 interfaith leaders have requested that President Joe Biden establish a commission to study reparations for African Americans by signing an executive order by the newly recognized federal holiday Juneteenth.
“Our faith traditions hold as central the essential worth of each person as having been created in the image of God,” wrote the leaders in a Tuesday (Feb. 28) letter co-organized by the National Council of Churches and Faith for Black Lives. “Our faith also teaches the importance of contrition and restoration when we commit acts of wrongdoing that denigrate others.”
They urged Biden to base an order on the structure of H.R. 40, legislation proposed for decades that has yet to pass on Capitol Hill, and sign it by the date of the June 19 federal holiday, which marks the day in 1865 that enslaved people in Texas learned they were free.
Bishop Vashti M. McKenzie, the NCC’s interim president and general secretary, said in a statement, quoting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., that the letter “speaks to the fierce urgency of now to preserve American democracy through reparative justice.”
Added the Rev. Stephen A. Green, who chairs the advocacy organization Faith for Black Lives: “(A)s attempts to erase Black History continue across the nation, it is imperative that we respond with a federal approach to address the harms and vestiges of slavery and segregation.”
The leaders noted statements of apology by denominations and other faith groups for their role in slavery and reparative actions taken by some groups. They cited the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, which announced in May its first grant distribution of $175,000 to groups supporting Black communities in the state.
They also said the nation’s “wrongs of slavery and segregation” need to be examined, noting that it’s been decades since President Ronald Reagan signed a law so people of Japanese descent were compensated for being held in internment camps during World War II and President Bill Clinton formally apologized for the medical mistreatment of Black men in the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study.
“Only an honest and complete assessment of the harms done by the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial discrimination that provides for the restoration of those harmed will right the wrongs of the past that still haunt us today,” the leaders wrote.
Other signatories include Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of Rainbow PUSH Coalition; and Edward Ahmed Mitchell, national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The letter was developed as the NCC and Reform Jews have created a partnership with students and a professor at Harvard Kennedy School in which the religious organizations are developing a faith-based blueprint to advance the possibility of reparations for African Americans.
The Rev. Cornell William Brooks, a former president of the NAACP and the professor leading the “Creating Justice in Real Time” course, is also a signatory on the letter to Biden.
“We’re trying to build a grassroots, congregation-level strategy to take up the whole matter of federal reparations and ultimately establish a commission and ultimately push for legislation that addresses America’s profound racial wealth gap,” Brooks told Religion News Service in February.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner’s name.