New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover testified Wednesday before a House panel hearing on reparations for slavery, bringing a political issue from the campaign trail to the front and center on Capitol Hill.
The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties heard from the three along with other witnesses as it considered legislation that would establish a commission to study the consequences and impacts of slavery and make recommendations for reparations proposals.
The measure, HR 40, is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, who said it was up to Congress to “correct our error” of instituting laws that made slavery an act of the state.
HR 40 was first introduced decades ago by former Rep. John Conyers. Booker introduced a companion version of the bill to the Senate in April.
Booker, the first witness to speak, told the committee that America has not yet grappled with racism and white supremacy and that the hearing presents a “historic opportunity to break the silence, to speak to the ugly past and talking constructively about how we will move this nation forward.”
“It’s about time we find the common ground and the common purpose to deal with the ugly past and make sure that generations ahead do not have to continue to mark disparities,” Booker said on Wednesday.
The emotional hearing, which fell on Juneteenth – also called Emancipation Day, which celebrates the end of slavery – lasted roughly three and a half hours. The scene outside the hearing room Wednesday morning was chaotic given the wide interest in attending the hearing. Massive crowds waited to get inside the committee room, which was at maximum capacity as the hearing got underway.
“I do think that it’s worthy of attention,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN in a brief interview at a separate event in Washington. “And that’s what it will get.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday that he expects the House will hold a vote on HR 40.
“I think that’s a very serious issue. We need to look at it,” the Maryland Democrat said.
The topic of reparations has been raised to the forefront as Booker and other Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have weighed in on the issue while on the campaign trail.
At a conference in April hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton’s political organization, several of the top-tier 2020 Democratic presidential contenders said they would support the House bill. The issue of reparations, which was kept on the fringes of mainstream political debate for decades, has emerged in the 2020 primary as a litmus test for Democrats vying to unseat President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he opposes paying reparations, arguing “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he called America’s “original sin.”
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.
Booker said Wednesday that there is “tremendous amount of ignorance” in McConnell’s statement.
“I think that one of the big strikes of ignorance that he said there is that somehow this is about a compensation, in other words, writing a check to somebody, and reducing the urgency of this conversation to simply that. That alone is problematic,” Booker said in an interview on SiriusXM’s “The Joe Madison Show” Wednesday morning ahead of the hearing.
Coates, who put a spotlight on the subject with his 2014 piece in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations,” strongly rebuked McConnell’s remarks during the hearing Wednesday.
“For a century after the Civil War, black people were subjected to a relentless campaign of terror, a campaign that extended well into the lifetime of Majority Leader McConnell,” said Coates, who went on to list several incidents of violence and atrocities against African-Africans.
“Majority Leader McConnell cited civil rights legislation yesterday, as well he should, because he was alive to witness the harassment, jailing and betrayal of those responsible for that legislation by a government sworn to protect them,” he added.
Some members on the House panel and witnesses opposed to HR 40 argued that reparations are not the best method to address discrimination, racism and inequality.
“People who are owed for slavery are no longer here. And we’re not entitled to collect on their debts. Reparations, by definition, are only given to victims. So the moment you give me reparations, you’ve made me into a victim without my consent,” magazine writer Coleman Hughes, who said he’s the descendent of slaves, told the panel.
This story has been updated with developments from Wednesday’s hearing.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Clare Foran, Rebecca Buck, Alex Rogers and Haley Burton contributed to this report.