McGovern makes reparations pitch to Biden, using Amherst as model

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-10-2023 4:59 PM

AMHERST — U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern is using his recent participation in a listening session of Amherst’s African Heritage Reparation Assembly as the basis for calling on President Joe Biden to create a presidential commission to study reparations for slavery.

“Amherst is doing the work — they should be a model for the rest of the country,” McGovern wrote in a Feb. 28 letter to Biden that also thanks the president for his work related to addressing systemic racism and racial inequality.

McGovern’s appeal follows bills that have been introduced in Congress to establish a federal commission on reparations, and requests by more than 30 civil rights organizations, along with U.S. senators, including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for forming a presidential commission.

While none of these have yet become law, and the bill known as H.R. 40 stalled in Congress and is unlikely to gain traction with a GOP majority, McGovern’s letter focuses on what he has learned about Amherst, which became the second community in the country, following Evanston, Illinois, to take the lead on reparations.

Amherst, he wrote, was prompted to begin exploring how to pursue this form of social justice following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. A Town Council resolution that December focused on ending structural racism and promoting racial equity, leading to the formation of the assembly in June 2021 and then last year’s town commitment to set aside $2 million over 10 years.

McGovern, the ranking member of the Committee on Rules in the House of Representatives, joined the Amherst assembly’s January meeting, continuing his focus on the topic that began in 1999. The Worcester Democrat has since cosponsored H.R. 40, the act to study and develop reparations proposals; and in 2020 was an original cosponsor of House Continuing Resolution 100, urging the establishment of a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.

For those in Amherst, McGovern’s advocacy is now going beyond being simply a cosponsor of a congressional bill.

“Congressman McGovern’s endorsement of reparations has grown from H.R. 40 to real leadership, pushing Biden now from his seeing our work, which is the No. 1 aim of local restorative justice activism,” said Amilcar Shabazz, a member of the assembly.

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Before drafting the letter, McGovern sought out additional advice from those in Amherst.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who chairs the assembly, said the members were thrilled when McGovern’s office reached out to ask for input on the letter he would be sending to Biden.

“We’re doing the work here in Amherst, and it’s encouraging to know that our congressman values our leadership and is taking concrete steps to advance reparations on a national level,” Miller said.

Amherst’s efforts have also been spurring other initiatives close by. In Northampton, for instance, a resolution has been adopted to create a city commission to investigate historical and ongoing injustices against Black residents and workers in the city.

That resolution cites the nearly centurylong history of slavery in Northampton, followed by a diminishing of the city’s African American population, past discriminatory zoning policies and a current lack of diversity as reasons to pursue reparations. Working with the Northampton Reparations Committee, the commission could be ready to begin its work in early spring.

McGovern’s letter to the White House, which hasn’t yet received a response, praises Biden for already taking historic steps through executive orders to address racial inequality and systemic racism through federal government actions, and raising awareness of housing discrimination, racial segregation and mass incarceration faced by Black Americans.

“Our nation has a duty to learn from the past so that we can create policies, that address the impact of harm enacted upon Black people in the United States,” McGovern wrote. “The enduring problems of systemic racism and racial inequality will not be effectively addressed until we do so.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.]]>