A prayer on a Brooklyn street preceded the filing of an unprecedented $1.4 trillion lawsuit against eight major corporations alleged to have profited from their historical ties to the slave trade more than 137 years ago.
Claiming to represent all of the United States' 35 million African-Americans, New York slave reparations activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann named Aetna Inc., CSX Corp. and FleetBoston Financial Corp., among others, as unjustly profiting from the slave trade before the Civil War ended in 1865.
"We are going to finally hold corporations accountable for the crimes against humanity that they've committed against my ancestors," Farmer-Paellmann told reporters Tuesday.
"This is a case that targets corporate America. It targets those companies that we can prove were built on the backs of African slaves, that were built on the sweat and labor of African slaves that was never paid for, and we say 150 years later pay for it," said Bruce Nagel, an attorney representing Farmer-Paellmann.
"I don't think that it will prevail," said Fox News senior judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano. "It's inconceivable that someone alive or enjoying this wealth today had anything to do with it 150 years ago."
The suit was prepared by some of the same lawyers behind the Holocaust lawsuits that ended up winning $8 billion from Swiss banks that held Nazi assets taken from Jews before and during World War II. The lawyers for Farmer-Paellmann say they plan to file more suits and hope to identify as many as 1,000 corporations that benefited from slavery.
Attorney Ed Fagen of Fagen and Associates, one of the firms working for Farmer-Paellmann, said three complaints were filed Tuesday in New York and New Jersey implicating eight companies.
Hartford-based Aetna has already had a run-in with Farmer-Paellmann in the past. Two years ago, the company, which has given more than $36 million to the black community and hosts an annual symposium on race at its corporate offices, admitted that it insured slaves for slave owners and apologized.
"Aetna has long acknowledged that for several years shortly after its founding in 1853, that the company may have insured the lives of slaves," the firm said in March 2000. "We express our deep regret over any participation at all in this deplorable practice."
On Monday, Aetna responded to the news of the pending lawsuit. "We do not believe a court would permit a lawsuit over events which — however regrettable — occurred hundreds of years ago," a statement released by the company said. "These issues in no way reflect Aetna today."
CSX also issued a statement late Monday.
"The claimants named CSX because slave labor was used to construct portions of some U.S. rail lines under the political and legal system in place more than a century before CSX was formed in 1980. The lawsuit to be filed in federal court in New York City against CSX and other corporations demanding financial reparations is wholly without merit and should be dismissed," it said.
A spokeswoman for FleetBoston said the company would not comment until it has seen the lawsuit.
Though Farmer-Paellmann's suit is the first of its kind, it's unlikely to be the last. According to reports, a Washington-based group that includes O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran, Harvard University professor Cornel West, and Columbia scholar Manning Marable, has already developed a list of targeted corporations.
Those include New York Life, AIG, J.P. Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank, as well as Aetna and FleetBoston.
Media publishers who once printed ads for slave owners have also been fingered by reparations advocates, as have major colleges and universities — including Harvard and Yale — whose many early benefactors were documented slave owners.
"It’s safe to assume that these are the first steps and ongoing research as we speak is being done on a variety of institutions, public and private," said Marable, who said blacks continue to suffer in the private sector by experiencing higher insurance and mortgage rates from companies whose equity was raised on the backs of slaves.
"To me it’s not fundamentally about the money, it is about the truth of history and bringing the truth to light, which will promote a frank and honest discussion across the racial divide," he said.
Critics say the companies being targeted look nothing like they did almost a century and a half ago and that shareholders today weren’t even alive when the slave trade took place so they shouldn’t be held responsible for past evils.
"The real problem is they are publicly-traded companies, and they cannot afford the publicity. It’s a form of shakedown, extortion. The companies today are completely different from the companies they are talking about in the past; the people who will get the money are people who aren’t slaves," said scholar David Horowitz, who recently released Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery.
But Joyce A. Ladner, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute and author of The New Urban Leaders, said even if they don't succeed, the suit will have made its point.
"This case does two things, it educates the larger public about the role that institutions played in slavery," she said, and it "redresses old grievances" by tying specific harm to companies and the government.
"These lawyers — and they are some of the finest legal minds in America — know that this is basically a frivolous lawsuit that will not succeed, but to the extent that they can stir the pot and get us to talk about this and maybe create this fund for scholarships and maybe get an apology from Congress, they will have accomplished their purpose," Napolitano said.
Fox News' Eric Shawn contributed to this report.