Today’s post is part of a week-long series featuring excerpts from a special issue on activist Queen Mother Audley Moore. The issue is now available in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International
No one has done more to integrate claims for reparations for African Americans into Black activism than “Queen Mother” Audley Moore. An activist for 70 years, she dedicated the majority of her career to fighting for reparations. Moore argued that to promote reparations was to adopt a political stance that claimed that the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow systematically destroyed the culture, heritage, and rights of Africans and their descendants and that these atrocities could only be remedied through extensive economic restitution distributed by way of grassroots networks. Her pioneering role in forging the modern reparations movement, though often overlooked, foregrounds the critical role Black women played in forging real and imagined diasporic communities through calls for repayment.
Moore’s upbringing primed her to be a reparations advocate. She spent her girlhood in New Iberia and New Orleans, Louisiana, places known for a precarious balance of racial violence and defiant Black communities. Here, she would have heard of Callie House who was the founder of the early reparations movement through her organization, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, and organized formerly enslaved people across the South. Louisiana was also a stronghold for Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. As a Garveyite, Moore learned how to incorporate demands for repayment into her activism, including Garvey’s approach of demanding that colonial powers “hand back” the land, riches, and culture that they had stolen from African people. Inspired by leaders like Garvey, Moore looked for opportunities to organize her community when she migrated to Harlem in the early 1920s. When the UNIA dissipated, she joined the Communist Party and furthered her analysis of race, class, gender, and reparations.
The Party connected Moore with other organizations that advocated for government intervention and, at times, restitution. In the 1950s, she was a member of the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, and participated in the group’s appeals for government intervention and restitution for women such as Rosa Lee Ingram, a Black woman accused of killing her white male attacker. Moore was also a member of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC). In 1951, CRC Chairman William Patterson submitted a petition to the United Nations called “We Charge Genocide,” which detailed the litany of human rights abuses Black Americans endured and that demanded international intervention. Through these collectives, Moore learned how to systematically document historical and contemporary racial violence and appeal to international bodies for redress.
In the 1960s, Moore became a reparations leader. She returned to New Orleans and founded Universal Association of Ethiopian Women (UAEW). This group led poor and working-class Black women in petitioning the state to reinstate their welfare benefits as a form of reparations. Explaining that their need for welfare sometimes stemmed from trying to feed children who “belonged to white men and black mothers dare not name the fathers for fear of reprisals,” the UAEW leader argued that welfare was not a handout, but a form of restitution for white men’s past and present institutionalized sexual violence.1 UAEW members’ efforts to petition the state for redress caused them to explore the idea reparations. The group also began a campaign to encourage Black Americans to file a formal reparations claim with the US government in 1963 in honor of the centennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Moore found support for this idea with members of the National Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Observance Committee (NEPCOC). At the organization’s first and only conference in Philadelphia in October 1962, Moore called on her audience to “demand for reparations for the injuries inflicted upon [their] nation by the dominant white nation.”2 At Moore’s behest, conference attendees drafted a “Resolution on Reparations” in which participants argued that the United States government owed present-day Black Americans restitution. They argued that the government should pay “adequate reparations due to all Black Americans with interest from 1865 to the present day.”3
After the NEPCOC conference, Moore traveled the country to garner support for their reparations claim. She gained the most traction in Southern California, with a group of activists that included press moguls Sanford and Patricia Alexander. The Alexanders used their newspaper, the Herald Dispatch, to publicize the events of the NEPCOC. With the help of the Reparations Committee, Moore also published her most extensive analysis and rationale for repayment: Why Reparations?: Reparations Is the Battle Cry for the Economic and Social Freedom of More than 25 Million Descendants of American Slaves.
Why Reparations? detailed Moore’s plan for the distribution of remunerative funds. Moore took “the position that the descendants of American Slaves must be given preferential treatment…with immediate hiring on a quota basis in every level of [American] industry, implemented with an intensified on the job training program.” She argued that Black Americans were entitled to 13.1 percent of all jobs as well as “preferential treatment and hiring on a job quota basis” to “further serve to balance [their] mal-treatment.” This document reflected Moore’s efforts to establish a legal and judicial justification for repayment and indicate how reparations activism could foster differently constituted futures for people of African descent in the United States. Her ideas took root in Los Angeles, forming another branch of her grassroots reparations movement.
When she returned to Philadelphia, Queen Mother began mentoring young Black Power activists and impressing upon them the importance of integrating reparations into their organizing. According to Muhammad Ahmad, founder of the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), she served as the group’s ideological and organizational mentor. She also “emphasized the importance” of “the demand for reparations.” Following Moore’s lead, RAM activists argued that the US government owed African Americans forty acres and a mule “plus a 100 years of back interest,” amounting to “880 million acres of land.”4 Moore also mentored activists in The East, a Brooklyn-based cultural nationalist organization, as well as members of the New York Chapter of the Black Panther Party. In each of these relationships, the elder activist emphasized the importance of incorporating reparations into their political agendas and fostered a strong stance on reparations among young Black radicals.
The founders of the Republic of New Africa (RNA) were among the Black Power activists who acted on Moore’s recommendations. Over five hundred Black nationalists, including Moore, met on March 31, 1968, in Detroit, Michigan, to form the organization with the goal of developing a separate Black nation. In addition to developing a provisional government, the RNA also created an economic plan that called for reparations. The group demanded that the government give “every Black Family $15,000” as reparations owed because of the “economic, educational and social discriminations permitted…since slavery.”
As reparations organizing spread at home, Moore took her campaign abroad. In 1972, she was a keynote speaker the All-Africa Women’s Conference (AAWC) in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Moore used this opportunity to push women to be the leaders of the modern reparations campaign, calling on them to take a leading role in freeing the diaspora by “demand[ing] reparations for all these years of inhuman treatment inflicted upon [them].”5 When she returned to Dar es Salaam in 1974 for the Sixth Pan-African Congress, she continued to proselytize for her reparations cause. By the early 1980s, she would be known across the diaspora for transforming reparations into an international movement and political project as well as for creating a diaspora of new reparations advocates.
In the 1980s, Moore joined forces with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA). N’COBRA began an ambitious campaign to educate the public about reparations through town hall meetings and conferences and supported Representative John Conyers’s 1989 bill, HR 40, which called for congressional approval of a study to examine reparations and the effects of the legacy of slavery on US life and society. As Robin D.G. Kelley noted, N’COBRA upheld “a radical concept of reparations as more than a paycheck and an apology.” This position reflected Moore’s argument that reparations claims were conduits through which African Americans could reorder race, class, and gender constructs through sustained emphasis on recognition, repayment, and rebuilding.
In many ways, Moore successfully cultivated a grassroots movement, organizing everyone from middle-aged Black women in New Orleans, to middle-class African Americans in Los Angeles, to young nationalists and Marxists in Philadelphia and New York, around her reparations cause. Moore planted the seeds for reparations organizing across multiple geographical locales, collectives, and conferences. Moreover, she fostered reparations activism in liberal and radical organizations as well as among women’s collectives and professional groups. Tracing Moore’s reparations activism reveals her commitment to a diverse and capacious concept of a reparations movement that offered multiple entry points for activists across the political spectrum.
In 1968, Moore remarked, “No matter what we are going to do, unless we have reparations we will never be able to do anything.”6 Queen Mother Moore certainly meant that African Americans deserved and should demand repayment. But her larger message, and contribution to the Black freedom movement, was to show that through a reparations movement, organizers could reckon with each other and their troubled past, as well as chart a course toward a collective self-determining and self-governing future.
- “Charges Gov. Davis Welfare Aid Remarks ‘Irresponsible,’” Louisiana Weekly, October 1, 1960, 1, 7. ↩
- Audley Moore, “Address to the National Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Observance Committee,” October 12, 1962, carton 4, reel 15, folder 35, Social Protest Collection, 1943–1982, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. ↩
- National Emancipation Proclamation Committee, “Resolution on Reparations,” in African American Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Conference Souvenir Journal, National Emancipation Proclamation Centennial Observance Committee, Bureau File 100-46312. ↩
- “The U.S. Owes Afro-Americans 770 Million Acres of Land,” July 1967, reel 12, The Black Power Movement: Part 3: Papers of the Revolutionary Action Movement, microfilm. ↩
- Audley Moore, “Speech to All-Africa Women’s Conference,” box 39, folder 2, Preston Wilcox Papers. ↩
- Queen Mother Moore, “Reparations,” in the Black Power Conference Reports, reel 11, RAM Papers. ↩