Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
A hundred years ago this month, a white woman living near the all-Black town of Rosewood, Florida claimed she'd been assaulted by a Black man. A violent mob of hundreds of white men attacked Rosewood, murdered dozens of Black men, women, and children, and burned the town to ashes. Survivors of the racist massacre fled in exile, but no survivors or descendants of victims have received reparations.
Two years before Rosewood, a violent, racist white mob destroyed the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that was known as Black Wall Street. No survivors or descendants of victims have received reparations in Tulsa.
Fifteen years earlier, nearly a hundred Black people were killed by racist mobs in the Atlanta massacre of 1906. No survivors or descendants of victims have received reparations. Before that, an insurrectionist white mob in Wilmington, North Carolina, overthrew a duly elected interracial local government and killed as many as 300 Black residents in the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, and no survivors or descendants of victims have ever received reparations.
Speaker 2: This is American history.
Speaker 3: We want cash payment.
Speaker 4: Give us what we're due.
Speaker 5: I don't know why they would be given more status than any other group of people.
Speaker 6: It was a crime, but no one paid the price.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The Big Payback is a new documentary chronicling the continuing efforts for reparations at the federal level in the form of H.R. 40. It's a measure introduced by the late Congressman John Conyers back in 1989. The film also tells the story of a successful fight for reparations in Evanston, Illinois.
I spoke with the co-directors of the big payback, actress and creator Erika Alexander, and Whitney Dow, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and educator. Now, Erika, I'm going to begin with you because The Big Payback is your directorial debut. Tell me about birthing this film.
Erika Alexander: It was a wonderful collaboration between Whitney and I and our team. We were first introduced by Joy Reid, and Whitney and I thought it best to do it together because of the different points of views. He had a background in, obviously, doing race subjects. For me, as a first-time director, I might have known a little bit about the subject, but I hadn't directed anything. He so graciously wasn't put off by that. In fact, he was a great teacher and a real great partner, and that's how we got it done. I got to say it was also done on the plague and pandemic. That made it much more difficult, but we got it done and that's the important part.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What came first, the podcast or the movie?
Erika Alexander: The podcast came first. I had been on Charlamagne's show, The Breakfast Club, and he asked us about reparations. Then he called later on when he got his deal with the Black Effect and/or for the Black Effect, and he said, "Yo, Queen, you want to do a podcast?" I'm like, "Okay, God." It's a weird conversation, but that's how it happened. He wanted it. We talked about the end of December in 2020, and then he needed it by the Black History Month, and so we just started to get it done. It started to debut and play in February.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Whitney, I want to bring you in here because the podcast on reparation of The Big Payback, it's billed as this narrative podcast hosted by social justice Erika Alexander, who's a Black woman, and Whitney Dow, a white man, so you are identity first in this conversation in so many ways. Talk to me about why that creative tension that actually is generative, why that mattered.
Whitney Dow: It has to be a biracial project. I think so many times it's most important for me, Melissa, for white people to understand that this is their story and their fight. That most of the time things about reparations or things about some racial injustice are built as a problem for the Black community that needs to be addressed from either-- We're these passive bystanders and if we're nice people, we jump in and we help. That's not the case. This is our story and it would be irresponsible, I think, for any project about, especially about reparations to not have both the white point of view and the Black point of view involved.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to move through this geographically and some of the same ways that you all make a choice to in this film. There's a narrative, there's a storyline we're following around the local reparative efforts in Evanston, Illinois, and then the federal level efforts of Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and H.R. 40. Maybe if you could walk us through just the Evanston story a bit and then the H.R. 40 story a bit.
Whitney Dow: Well, this film, as many films, started in a very different project. We were really going to do something that was much more thesis-based, and that we were going to explore the ways between the past and the present, and how the need for reparations is evidenced by how the past manifests itself in the present. Part of that story was being embedded in Congress with Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and following the H.R. 40 process.
What happened is as we got into filming that process and spending time in Capitol Hill, the story of Robin Rue Simmons in Evanston, Illinois, a woman who passed the first tax-funded reparations program in US history, popped up on our radar. We flew out to Evanston I think in December 2019 for the announcement of the program. Once we met Robin and saw the historical nature of what we was trying to do, we pivoted and realized that that story and following that story to its conclusion was an incredibly important story to follow.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell us a little bit about the story, Erika. What is it that's going on in Evanston? I got to say, I'm assuming for some folks that when we start with a space that is reparations, they're going to assume we're starting south of the Mason Dixon in a former Confederate state.
Erika Alexander: That's right, but slavery obviously was everywhere and most importantly very much sounded inside of the north, and so you have in the Midwest here, Evanston and all the sorts of things that go with Jim Crow and redlining and all these things, and their neighborhoods have been affected by it. Here's this young alderwoman, Robin Rue Simmons, who gets the job, who has just come from Africa. She looks at the host of problems and she says, "You know what? The only thing that can fix this and really attack the system inside of it and the hold that it has on these separate neighborhoods, whether you're white, Black, or otherwise, is reparations."
She moved to pass a bill without really knowing much about reparations. Five of the eight councilmen with her were white, and they passed it too because they had just gotten a hold of some new money, some revenue coming in from cannabis sales. They had just made that legal. It was new revenue. It hadn't been allocated anywhere. She thought, "You know what? I'm going to get this money before it's given to something else." They passed it and then the problems begin.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're going to take a quick break and come right back with more from the co-directors of the new documentary, The Big Payback.
It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're continuing with the co-directors of The Big Payback, Erika Alexander and Whitney Dow. All right. I want to talk about it at the federal level, how Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee is a force of nature.
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee: "Clearly we require reckoning to restore national balance and unity. The government sanctioned slavery, and that is what we need, a reckoning, a healing, reparative of justice. We need to bring our nation together."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erika, can you start by telling me a bit about her?
Erika Alexander: Sheila Jackson Lee is a force of nature. I adore that woman. She is everything that's good about what Congress is because she just keeps going and she's part of my superhero story. She is the congresswoman from Houston, and when John Conyers from Detroit retired, she took on and took up H.R. 40. H.R. 40 is a study to look at, repair, and overall effects of racism in America. That's been stuck in Congress for, what now, 32 years. I'd let Whitney keep going from here.
Whitney Dow: When we joined the story, not only was it stuck in the Judiciary Committee, the Judiciary Committee wouldn't take it up for debate. You have to understand that this bill with John Conyers first wrote it, and it's just modified a little bit by Representative Jackson Lee, was built to talk about reparations and discuss what might be appropriate remedies to remedy some of the situations that the legacies of slavery.
What Sheila had really worked hard to do is to push it forward. We realized that she was actually going to get a debate with the Judiciary Committee. Having the opportunity to actually hear reparations debated across the aisle inside the Judiciary Committee seemed like a huge opportunity. The situation as it is now is that there's enough votes to pass it. She has enough co-sponsors in the House, but the leadership has yet to bring it to the floor. Now we're in this moment where it's passed at the Judiciary Committee, but it's been yet to be brought to the floor for a vote.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why do you think that is?
Whitney Dow: Well, I think that the idea of reparations, especially for the left, and I blame the left for this, is that theoretically, it's great, but the political calculus of every-- We're always in an election cycle. It's always as soon as the election cycle will bring it forward. Before was the midterms, "Oh, we can't bring this in before the midterms." Now we're entering the season of the presidential election, and they're terrified of having this debate publicly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of timing and that question of like the strategy around electoral politics, I want to pause for a second because this film is going to debut on the day set aside to honor Martin Luther King Jr. I'm wondering about the ways that both the left and the right have revised our understanding of Dr. King in such a way that moves him away from this redistributive effort or this effort to actually repair the harm and just always makes him, again, to use your phraseology, Whitney, they make Dr. King a theoretical project rather than something that is really about impacting people's lives.
Whitney Dow: Absolutely. It's like he's almost like a funhouse mirror for everybody who has their own reflection. You're looking at him through people's warped perceptives and actually, warps needs and desires and ambitions, and they're always constantly reforming him. I think it would be interesting for him to come back and see exactly how people use his words and use his image in order to promote their own agendas. We're really, really, really excited that this thing is forbearing on Independent Lens on Martin Luther King Day on PBS. Because we really feel like Robin and Sheila Jackson Lee, they're the legacy of Martin Luther King's work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erika, you gave us that little tease ahead. That's when the challenges started. That's when the big stuff started in Evanston. I don't want you to give away everything in the film, but I do want you to talk a little bit about the issue that no solution is perfect, and the impatience around this issue of how the money will come and be spent. Can you talk a little bit about why you thought it was so important to give a voice to that in the film?
Erika Alexander: Well, I think it's important to give a voice because 2020 was certainly a great clarifier. Because of COVID, because of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, the insurrection, poverty, the Fight for $15, all of these things are going on at the same time, and what does Prince say is a sign of the times, and reparations is a remedy for wrongs.
Speaking of Martin Luther King and his poor people's campaign when he was switching over to talking about reparations and going to Washington to get that check, he understood that being overwhelmed by the systemic nature of the 400 years of just pure terror and injustice had to be addressed by America. Not only giving us the remedy through targeted programs and actual money but also apology to say, "You have to apologize for this so we can deal with immoral injustice here."
It will always be talked about. People get really confused about what's at stake and what's going on, but we're talking about 400 years of slavery, we're talking about terror acts, white supremacy, all that but it's embedded in policy and it's unspoken a lot. That's why the real problems start once you pass something that gets you on stage or to addressing injustice in whatever way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to end by just having both of you give me a final takeaway and maybe the way to think about this in part is, imagine you're on the elevator with someone and you're like, "Oh yes, just made a film about reparations." The question is, why would we need reparations? I'm going to start with you, Whitney, and then I'm going to land on you there, Erika.
Whitney Dow: We talk relentlessly about the divisions in this country and the polarization of this country. I'm someone who really believes that so many of our divisions are actually based in this inability for us to cross this racial divide and actually really for white people to understand how they are actually the architects of so many of the issues that lie in front of us.
I believe that reparations are important for Black Americans for the obvious reasons of building equality, but I feel that reparations are equally as important for white Americans as a way to heal what I feel is this festering wound inside of us that we know. You know when you've done someone wrong and you know when you haven't made amends, and the healing power of making amends, I think, will really make this country much stronger, perhaps even close some of the divisions that are facing us now.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erika, what's your final takeaway? Why do we need reparations?
Erika Alexander: We've been having this conversation for several decades since reconstruction, and a lot of great people from Frederick Douglass, Garvey, Callie House, Queen Mother Moore, James Forman, all these people, N'COBRA, now FirstRepair. Sheila Jackson Lee have been trying to address it and move us forward, but I'm a student and my mentor in my life student is Reverend Barber. Reverend William Barber of the Poor People's Campaign famously has marked this period as the third reconstruction.
That means that this is the time to rebuild that foundation that should have been built since reconstruction. If this is a third reconstruction, that means that we are all architects of this reconstruction. We need to put on our tool belt and get to work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Erika Alexander is a co-director of the new documentary, The Big Payback. Her other co-director is Whitney Dow. It's going to make its television debut on PBS Independent Lens today, Martin Luther King Day. Thank you both for joining us.
Whitney Dow: Thank you, Melissa.
Erika Alexander: Thank you.
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