White Congressman Seeks National Apology for Slavery - 90 House Members Sign
White Congressman Seeks National Apology for Slavery - 90 House Members Sign Resolution
From the TN Commercial Appeal
By Bartholomew Sullivan
WASHINGTON -- Germany has apologized for its treatment of Jews in World War II. Australia has apologized to its aborigines. And Tony Blair has apologized to the Irish for Great Britain's handling of the potato famine.American presidents have come close to apologizing to African-Americans for slavery, and several have spoken of the evil of what some historians call the peculiar institution. Soon, in a measure introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., -- a white man representing a largely black district -- the United States House of Representatives could finally, formally apologize for slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the continuing legacy of discrimination against black people.As of last week, due in part to a strategy devised to appeal more intimately to potential backers of his congressional resolution, Cohen had collected 97 co-sponsors, including Republican Phil English of Pennsylvania.In separate letters to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Jewish caucus, and to members of the Missouri, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and New Jersey congressional delegations whose state legislatures have considered, or passed, similar resolutions, Cohen made his appeal."Slavery and Jim Crow laws were able to survive in our country because they were protected by the actions and acquiescence of the United States government, including Congress; we are still fighting their enduring legacies to this day," the letters say.Retired NAACP executive director Benjamin L. Hooks applauded the initiative."Anything we can do as a nation to heal the wounds that were inflicted, why, that's good," Hooks said. "A lot of people are negative about things like this, but I think you have to realize it's a positive step forward. It makes the nation look at the mistakes that were made, and acknowledge they were made, and says we recognize it's not over yet so that whatever we can do to alleviate it ought to be done."However small, it ought to be done."Despite its broad support, the idea of a congressional apology is not universally appreciated. Fred Lincoln, a retiree in Eads who commands the Nathan Bedford Forrest camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said last week that it doesn't even make sense. Forrest, a Confederate general, traded in slaves before the war."There are no slaves left and there are no slaveholders, so this is silly," said Lincoln, who noted that his immigrant ancestor named Lincoln arrived in America as an indentured servant."It seems to me like when you apologize for something you didn't do, all you're doing is leaving yourself open for -- I think what they're looking for is reparations. ... That's what it's all about."Cohen, who is passionate about the topic, says he believes the resolution would be a first step toward racial reconciliation. In some of his letters to congressmen, but not all, Cohen notes that his resolution does not call for reparations or payments to the living descendants of slaves.Other critics, such as University of Memphis history professor Charles W. Crawford, object to the resolution because they believe it's not a proper activity for the House of Representatives."There's nothing really wrong with it, but the past is filled with so much injustice to so many people, as we see things now, that what role does government really have in apologizing? " Crawford asked. He added that one "whereas" clause in the resolution, stating that the Civil War was "fought over the slavery issue," is still "debated extensively" by historians and is "at best only partially correct."Professor Kenneth W. Goings, chairman of the Department of African-American and African Studies at the Ohio State University, and a former professor at both Rhodes College and the University of Memphis, said the resolution is more than "empty words.""Slavery did happen to people, and recognition of the kind of destruction it has caused -- an apology for that is very, very powerful," said Goings. He likened it to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by South Africa to get to the truth behind apartheid." 'Fessing up for wrongdoing -- we ask children to do that to make themselves better people," he added. "I think we should do that as American citizens to make ourselves better people."The lengthy resolution deals with all aspects of slavery's horrors in a series of "whereas" clauses. In one, Cohen wrote: "Whereas, after emancipation from 246 years of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the fleeting political, social and economic gains they had made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement ... and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life."It ends with a statement that Congress "acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow."It acknowledges, too, that an apology cannot erase the past but that it can "speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past."U.S. Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., whose district includes Raleigh, Frayser, parts of Millington and Tipton County, has endorsed the resolution. "There is no question that Jim Crow laws were a very dark period for our country," he said. "I support good-faith efforts to put those past injustices behind us and move forward as one country."House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's spokesman Drew Hammill said Friday that, while the speaker does not traditionally co-sponsor legislation, "she certainly supports the spirit of Mr. Cohen's resolution."If the measure makes it out of the House Judiciary Committee, which is likely because it's dominated by supporters of the resolution, it will get a vote on the House floor. Before it gets there, it probably will be amended, but with nearly a quarter of the House signed on as co-sponsors, the resolution will be popular.Presidents as far back as John Adams and Abraham Lincoln have condemned slavery. In more recent years, Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and the current President Bush have come close to an apology.While on a visit to the former slave port at Goree Island, Senegal, in 2003, Bush said of slavery: "Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. Years of unpunished brutality and bullying and rape produced a dullness and hardness of conscience. Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice."Two years later, the U.S. Senate, by voice vote, apologized for its repeated failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation when it might have had an effect. Neither of Mississippi' s Republican senators, Thad Cochran nor Trent Lott, were listed among the resolution's 80 co-sponsors.Washington correspondent Bartholomew Sullivan can be reached at (202) 408-2726.More info: Steve cohen:"Slavery and Jim Crow laws were able to survive in our country because they were protected by the actions and acquiescence of the United States government, including Congress; we are still fighting their enduring legacies to this day," the letters say.The textHouse Resolution 194: The Apology for Slavery and Jim Crow resolution, now before a House Judiciary subcommittee where it is likely to be amended, reads in part:Whereas slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals;Whereas Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage;Whereas enslaved families were torn apart after having been sold separately from one another;Whereas the system of slavery and the visceral racism against persons of African descent upon which it depended became entrenched in the Nation's social fabric;Whereas slavery was not officially abolished until the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1865 after the end of the Civil War, which was fought over the slavery issue;Whereas a genuine apology is an important and necessary first step in the process of racial reconciliation;Whereas an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help Americans confront the ghosts of their past...Resolved, That the House of Representatives(1) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;(2) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow; and(3) expresses its commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future.Cohen's appeals:In his letters to various members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen used different arguments to draw support for his slavery apology resolution:To U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.: "In your home state of Missouri, the state House of Representatives is currently moving a resolution that would 'formally apologize for the state of Missouri's role in slavery.' In both Missouri and across the U.S., an apology would acknowledge a national shame; this is not an empty gesture."To U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nevada: "As you are aware, we recently concluded our observance of Passover, a time each year when we as Jews remember that once we were slaves, and now we are free..."To U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C.: "As Don Imus's recent remarks about the Rutgers University Women's Basketball Team illustrate, we are still grappling with the consequences of Congress's action and inaction to this day... I urge you to join your fellow (Congressional Black Caucus) members as co-sponsors for this important resolution."