Somebody Has to Pay: Audley Moore, Mother of the Reparations Movement
With Ta-Nehisi Coates celebrated article, “The Case for Reparations,” and the recent awarding of reparations to victims of police torture in Chicago, repayment for racism and racial violence is part of public debate again. While many know of the recent, mainstream efforts to secure reparations for African Americans, few know of the African American woman activist that jumpstarted reparations activism in the 20th century.“Queen Mother” Audley Moore’s activist life spanned eight decades; much of which she dedicated to fighting for reparations. Her reparations advocacy traversed multiple organizations, geographical locations, and ideological affiliations.
Moore was born in New Iberia, Louisiana in the 1890s and raised amid the rise of the Jim Crow South. Looking to escape the harsh life of the south, she migrated to Harlem in the 1920s. After joining several radical organizations including the Communist Party and Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), Moore returned to her home state in 1955.
In 1957, she founded the Universal Association of Ethiopian Women (UAEW) and started to research reparations. UAEW members, at Moore’s behest, began a campaign to encourage African Americans to file a formal reparations claim with the U.S. government before the end of 1963 (100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation). To advance this agenda, she moved to Philadelphia and led the National Emancipation Proclamation Observance Committee (NEPOC) in 1962. Tasked with planning the celebration of the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Moore and her followers converted the commemoration into an opportunity to develop a national reparations campaign. The NEPOC developed a reparations claim for approximately 36 million dollars in back pay to be used for African American emigration to Africa, cultural and political development in black communities, and past wages for those who wanted to remain in America.
Moore gained the most traction for her reparations activism among activists in Southern California. With a group of L.A.-based black organizers, she founded the Reparations Committee for the Descendants of American Slaves. As the leader of the Reparations Committee, Moore published an extensive analysis of reparations: Why Reparations? Reparations Is the Battle Cry for the Economic and Social Freedom of More than 25 Million Descendants of American Slaves.
In Why Reparations, Moore defined reparations, established a historical basis for restitution and laid out her program for payment distribution. For the Louisiana-born activist, reparations was a means for “amends or compensation” for the “loss or damage” of African American lives and labor. Moore claimed that her call for “money damages, for the loss of their ancestors’ fair share of property which accrued by reason of their skills and labors” was not “without apt precedents in the field of law and nations.” She cited payments from West Germany and Finland, as well as the United States’ compensation of Japanese Americans, as evidence that reparations were a standard practice.
Moore also offered her plan for how the funds should be distributed. “The Reparations payment,” Moore argued, would be used to end the poverty of “Americans citizens of African descent.” She proposed job quotas or “immediate hiring on a quota basis in every level of our industry, implemented with an intensified on the job training program.” Key to Moore’s vision was that repayment should come in the form of wholesale economic advancement for African Americans rather than the US government doling out “a few thousand dollars for one group” to control. She argued that calls for freedom and justice were “empty slogans” without forcing America to reckon with its racist past through reparations.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Audley Moore convinced a new generation of activists of the need for reparations. She mentored many black power radicals including members of the Black Panther Party, the Republic of New Africa, and the Revolutionary Action Movement. Each of these groups incorporated reparations into their political program and many credit Moore with helping them develop their reparations framework.
Queen Mother Moore argued that reparations are “the most basic question before us” and that it was the “crux” of the problem of race relations in America. While she was serious about repayment for the atrocities of slavery and Jim Crow, Moore’s larger point was about the benefits of reparations activism and reparations as social movement. Justifying reparations requires a substantive engagement with the contours, layers, and intersections of white supremacy and patriarchy. Theorizing how reparations might be distributed reveals new points of convergence and community among people of African decent. In a world where we can’t go a week without another black person becoming a hashtag and the trauma of racial violence is continually on loop, Moore’s claim that reparative justice must accompany prosecutorial measures seems to be the “crux” of the solution.