NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/CNN) — New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and actor Danny Glover testified Wednesday before a House panel hearing on reparations for slavery, bringing a political issue from the campaign trail to the front and center on Capitol Hill.

The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties debated a bill to consider legislation that would establish a commission to study the consequences and impacts of slavery and make recommendations for reparations proposals, reports CBS2’s Dick Brennan.

The measure, HR 40, is sponsored by Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and was first introduced decades ago by former Rep. John Conyers. Booker introduced a companion version of the bill to the Senate in April.

Booker, the first witness to speak, told the committee that America has not yet grappled with racism and white supremacy and that the hearing presents a “historic opportunity to break the silence, to speak to the ugly past and talking constructively about how we will move this nation forward.”

“It’s about time we find the common ground and the common purpose to deal with the ugly past and make sure that generations ahead do not have to continue to mark disparities,” Booker said on Wednesday. “Decades of living in a community where you see how deeply unfair to this nation is to so many people, who struggle who work hard, who do everything right but still find lead in their water, Superfund in neighborhood schools that don’t serve their genius.”

The scene outside the hearing room Wednesday morning was chaotic given the wide interest in attending the hearing. Massive crowds waited to get inside the committee room, which was at maximum capacity as the hearing got underway.

“I do think that it’s worthy of attention,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told CNN in a brief interview at a separate event in Washington. “And that’s what it will get.”

The topic of reparations has been raised to the forefront as Booker and other Democratic 2020 presidential candidates have weighed in on the issue while on the campaign trail.

At a conference in April hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton’s political organization, several of the top-tier 2020 Democratic presidential contenders said they would support the House bill. The issue of reparations, which was kept on the fringes of mainstream political debate for decades, has emerged in the 2020 primary as a litmus test for Democrats vying to unseat President Donald Trump.

Booker has expressed frustration with the conversation around reparations — stating that it is being “reduced to a box to check on a presidential list, when this is so much more of a serious conversation.”

“Do I support legislation that is race-conscious about balancing the economic scales? Not only do I support it, but I have legislation that actually does it,” Booker told CNN’s Jake Tapper during a CNN town hall in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in late March.

The House committee hearing falls on Juneteenth, also called Emancipation Day, which celebrates the end of slavery.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he opposes paying reparations, arguing “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he called America’s “original sin.”

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters.

Booker said Wednesday that there is “tremendous amount of ignorance” in McConnell’s statement.

“One of the big strikes of ignorance he said is that somehow this is about a compensation, writing a check to somebody, and reducing the urgency of this conversation to simply that. That alone is problematic,” Booker said in an interview on SiriusXM radio Wednesday morning ahead of the hearing.

Coates put a spotlight on the subject with his 2014 piece in The Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.”

This story has been updated and will continue to update with developments from Wednesday’s hearing.

About Juneteenth Day

On this day in 1865 — commemorated now as Juneteenth — news of emancipation reached the enslaved people of Texas. The complete abolition of slavery, which became irrevocable later that year with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, meant the end of involuntary servitude and the beatings, assaults and torture that often accompanied it.

It also meant the end of forced family separation, in which children were wrenched away from their parents for the profit and convenience of the slaveholding authorities. We know from the surviving slave narratives that the legalized seizure of children was among the most dreaded incidents of American slavery. As one memoirist put it, the “bitter and cruel punishments … were as nothing to the sufferings I experienced by being separated from my mother.”

Juneteenth is the oldest known US celebration of the end of slavery. African-Americans and others mark the anniversary much like the Fourth of July, with parties, picnics and gatherings with family and friends. Here’s a look at Juneteenth, also called Emancipation Day, by the numbers:

153 – Years since Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger (Union Army) first read the proclamation, General Orders, No. 3, in Galveston, Texas, notifying slaves of their emancipation, on June 19, 1865.

January 1, 1863 – Date President Abraham Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those enslaved.

901 – Days in between the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation and General Orders, No. 3.

13th – Amendment to the US Constitution that abolished slavery.

3,953,760 – Estimated number of slaves in the United States in 1860.

30.2 – Percentage of the population of Texas comprised of slaves, or “bondsmen,” in 1860.

500,000 – Estimated number of free blacks in the United States in 1860. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, about half were in the North and half were in the South.

15 – States where it was legal to have slaves before the Civil War: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

45 – States with laws or resolutions celebrating Juneteenth.

January 1, 1980 – Juneteenth became a state holiday in Texas, although it had been celebrated informally since 1865.

“Every year we must remind successive generations that this event triggered a series of events that one by one defines the challenges and responsibilities of successive generations. That’s why we need this holiday.” — Al Edwards (D-Texas), sponsor of the bill.

45,133,880 – African-Americans (one race alone or in combination) in the United States in 2016, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimate.

145 years – Age of the oldest Juneteenth celebration in the world, in Emancipation Park in Houston.

40 – Congressional co-sponsors of House Resolution 268, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s bill to “observe the historical significance of Juneteenth Independence Day,” introduced in the House on June 17, 2013. It has been referred to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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