WASHINGTON — The House waded into the decades-old debate over reparations for African-Americans on Wednesday, convening its first hearing on legislation introduced 30 years ago that would create a commission to develop proposals to address the lingering effects of slavery and consider a “national apology” for the harm it has caused.
Hundreds of spectators, mostly black, were on hand for the historic hearing by a House Judiciary subcommittee, whose witnesses included Senator Cory Booker, the New Jersey Democrat and presidential candidate, the actor Danny Glover and the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who took direct aim at Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, for remarks he made Tuesday opposing the idea.
The room grew raucous at times, with spectators hissing at Republican witnesses and Representative Mike Johnson of Louisiana, the subcommittee’s senior Republican, when he spoke against the measure. In a comment that rippled throughout the hearing, Mr. Johnson suggested that great black leaders like Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington thought African-Americans should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
“Those great leaders encouraged people to take responsibility for their own lives, because that gives every human being a greater sense of meaning and satisfaction,” he said, adding that the bill “risks communicating the opposite message.”
That the hearing was held at all was a reflection of how the debate over reparations has been rejoined. Nearly 60 House Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, support the bill. And at least 11 Democratic presidential candidates — with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. a notable exception — have embraced either the concept of reparations or the bill to study it.
They include Mr. Booker, who is sponsoring a companion bill in the Senate and made an impassioned plea for it on Wednesday, calling the legacy of slavery, especially the mass incarceration of African-Americans, “a cancer on the soul of this country.”
But the real star was Mr. Coates, whose 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic rekindled the debate, arguing that African-Americans had been exploited by nearly every American institution. Mr. Coates called out Mr. McConnell several times by name, citing the senator’s comment that he does not favor reparations “for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible.”
Mr. Coates responded by ticking off a list of government-sponsored discriminatory policies, including those in Mr. McConnell’s native Alabama, including redlining and poll taxes, that are the legacy of slavery.
“He was alive for the redlining of Chicago and the looting of black homeowners of some $4 billion,” Mr. Coates said. “Victims of their plunder are very much alive today. I am sure they would love a word with the majority leader.”
“While emancipation deadbolted the door against the bandits of America, Jim Crow wedged the windows wide open,” he added. “That’s the thing about Senator McConnell’s ‘something.’ It was 150 years ago. It was right now.”
The hearing itself was laden with symbolism. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first documented arrival of Africans to the port of Jamestown in what was then the colony of Virginia. Wednesday, June 19, is Juneteenth, the holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States. And the bill carries the designation H.R. 40, a reference to the first proposal for reparations: the unfulfilled “40 acres and a mule” promise to freed slaves after the Civil War.
The House bill, titled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act,” would authorize $12 million for a 13-member commission — three members appointed by the president, three by the House, one by the Senate and six from organizations that have championed racial justice. The panel would study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination, hold hearings across the country and recommend “appropriate remedies” to Congress.
Wednesday’s session does not guarantee that the bill will be taken up by the full committee or get a vote on the House floor. A Democratic aide characterized it as an educational opportunity and chance to enhance the national dialogue around reparations. And even if the bill passed the House, it has virtually no chance of securing Senate passage or President Trump’s signature.
But both witnesses and advocates of the bill, including Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said it was important to at least have a conversation about reparations.
“The discussion of reparations is a journey in which the road traveled may be almost as important as the destination,” Mr. Nadler said.