Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's opposition to the U.S. paying reparations to descendants of slaves has bubbled back to the surface following a report saying his Alabama family owned more than a dozen slaves.
The NBC News report published Monday says census information and ancestry records show two of the Kentucky Republican's great-great-grandfathers — James McConnell and Richard Daley — owned at least 14 slaves in Limestone County, Alabama.
“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, when none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” McConnell said in June. "We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We’ve elected an African American president."
McConnell's comments came a day before the Democratic-controlled House held a hearing on reparations for slavery. The GOP leader's office did not immediately respond to the Courier Journal's request for comment Monday evening.
NBC News says a review of county “Slave Schedules” in the 1850 and 1860 census reports shows all but two of the slaves McConnell's great-great-grandfathers owned were women.
NBC included scanned versions of the census documents on its website, but the Courier Journal has not independently verified the news report.
University of Louisville professor Ricky L. Jones, who is chair of the Pan-African Studies Department and frequent Courier Journal contributing columnist, said Monday that given McConnell's roots are from Alabama, it isn't a surprise that his ancestors had human chattel.
"In his defense, and to paraphrase him on reparations, he wasn't alive then," Jones said. "He can't change that. What is unfortunate is that he maintains a certain level of damaging racial insensitivity and indifference that marked his distant kin. He can change that. Let's hope he will."
Jones said McConnell and his family, like other slave owners, did benefit from the free labor and subjugation of African Americans, however.
"McConnell benefited like any other individual, family or country would benefit — through the accumulation of generational wealth and privilege directly tied to the beastial submersion of other human beings into a system of long-term free labor and breeding," Jones said. "The benefits are far reaching and innumerable."
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McConnell, who is seeking reelection next year, has said part of his opposition to reparations is that it would be difficult to figure out how and whom to compensate.
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas, has introduced legislation that calls for a study on reparations. A similar proposal has been put forth in the Senate by Democrat Cory Booker, of New Jersey, however that bill hasn't moved.
Kentucky poet and activist Hannah Drake said the NBC News report underscores the need for such studies, particularly of those who oppose paying reparations today.
"Perhaps that is why McConnell is so opposed to reparations, because it would mean he would have to take a long hard look in the mirror and admit that his family benefited from owning black bodies, mainly the bodies of black women," she said.
"Before Mitch McConnell attempts to tell this nation about reparations, perhaps he can start by dealing with his own family's part in slavery," Drake added. "What, if anything, does he think his family owes the descendants of the slaves his family owned? Be assured your sins will and have found you out, Mitch."
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In 2016, a U.N. panel declared the U.S. did owe reparations to African Americans, as compensation for "the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality."
A University of Connecticut researcher — calculating the labor men, women and children contributed from 1776 to 1865 — estimated in 2016 that the price tag for slavey alone would cost between $5.9 trillion to $14.2 trillion to give historical reparations.
Others have estimated it would be as high as $17.1 trillion.
While reparations has become a more-talked-about subject among Democrats and the political left, it remains a non-starter for Republicans.
McConnell's surrogates were quick to dismiss the NBC News report when asked about it Monday.
"So far this year the news media has shockingly uncovered that... Mitch McConnell's is from Alabama," said CNN commentator Scott Jennings, another Courier Journal contributing columnist. "Excellent work."
Josh Holmes, a former McConnell chief of staff, rebuffed the report as "ridiculous" and pointed to a 2007 story, which found then-candidate Barack Obama's ancestors on his mother's side had owned slaves.
"You know who else is the descendant of slave owners and opposes reparations — Barack Obama," he told the Courier Journal.
The research, which was retraced by the Baltimore Sun, showed one of Obama's great-great-great-great grandfathers, George Washington Overall, owned two slaves who were recorded in the 1850 census in Nelson County, Kentucky. Other records showed that one of his great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers also owned two slaves.
In 2012, Ancestry.com also dived into the background of Obama's mother and found she was the descendent of a slave named John Punch, who was the first African to be declared "enslaved for life" in early Colonial Virginia.
Obama said he believed reparations were just, but that he didn't think such a proposal could pass Congress, where McConnell controlled the Senate, when he was asked about the subject in 2016.
"I’m not so optimistic as to think that you would ever be able to garner a majority of an American Congress that would make those kinds of investments above and beyond the kinds of investments that could be made in a progressive program for lifting up all people," Obama said.
"I have much more confidence in my ability, or any president or any leader’s ability, to mobilize the American people around a multiyear, multibillion-dollar investment to help every child in poverty in this country than I am in being able to mobilize the country around providing a benefit specific to African Americans as a consequence of slavery and Jim Crow," he added.
McConnell's views on race came into focus earlier this year when actor Samuel L. Jackson blasted the GOP leader in a wide-ranging interview with Esquire.
"I'm angrier now about it than I was then, just because I see these guys and I know these are the same guys: Trump and all those a--holes, Mitch McConnell," Jackson said. "But they're the same f---ing guys. And when I hear their voices, I hear the same voices. Those twangs where they didn’t specifically call you 'n-----,' they said 'nigra.'"
McConnell's defenders often point to his remarks against racial slurs and his praise of civil rights legislation during the 1960s when he has faced with charges of racism.
McConnell chastised Everett Corley, a Kentucky Republican who ran for the state legislature last year and who criticized McConnell's marriage to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is Asian, during a 2014 appearance on a white nationalist YouTube show.
"This racist behavior is completely despicable," McConnell told the Courier Journal at the time. "Such backwards views and hateful rhetoric must be given no corner in the Republican Party or anywhere in America. I’m not at all surprised that the state party is not affiliated with or in any way supporting this individual."
McConnell also lashed out against pizza mogul John Schnatter, who lives in Kentucky, when the Papa John's founder was skewered last year for using the N-word during a media training session.
McConnell supported removing Schnatter's name from the University of Louisville's football stadium.
In 2015, McConnell also called for removing a statue honoring Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy during the Civil War, from the Kentucky Capitol building.
Reporter Phillip M. Bailey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Report: Sen. Mitch McConnell's family owned 14 slaves in Alabama