Apologizing for slavery

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 Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., 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 90 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 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 outside Memphis, Tenn., 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."

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 descendents of slaves.

Others, such as University of Memphis history professor Charles Crawford, object to the resolution because they feel 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 Goings, chairman of the Department of African-American and African Studies at the Ohio State University, 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.

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."

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.


  1. bryan mcclellan

    Why don’t we apologize by stopping the out sourcing of jobs and the driving down of wages and the flood of illegals and I could go on and on. The best apology would be to provide descent schools to start with. I am an Adult Apprentice instructor and every class I have consists of over half not being able to read or do math at a sixth grade level.I say fractions and they freak out. Something as simple as reading a tape measure is rocket science to them.If we are to apologize would this not be the first logical step,Educate them so they have a sense of pride in their abilities? There are some who are just in class to float, but the bulk of these youngsters want to learn and as an American I’m totally embarrassed by the lack of effort given by our government to give all peoples a good learning base.What worse form of slavery can there be than to be uneducated. bush can talk all the crap he wants, and proof that he is full of it is evidenced by his diversion of funds for his no child left behind bullshit.Slavery in one form or another will always be with us. Apologize ? First lets make sure they know the definition of the word!!!!!

  2. www.nazilieskill.us

    We are luring Mexicans to serve as agri-business slaves now. As long as they are illegal, there is no difference. Most “education” is just another form of social control.

    John Hanks, Laramie, Wyoming

  3. Dayahka

    Everyone seems to think that the only slaves that existed in the US were black slaves from Africa, but in fact there were many white slaves from Ireland, and former black slaves are known to have owned white Irish slaves. If Congress is going to apologize to blacks for slavery, it should also apologise to whites for slavery (and similarly, for reparations, if any).

    As far as Blair apologizing for the genocide committed by the British against the Irish during the so-called potato famine (mid-1800’s), he should also apologize for the 300 plus years of genocide against the Irish committed by Elizabeth the First, Cromwell, and subsequent British leaders.

  4. yarply

    I guess if one apologized for slavery they would be saying that they are sorry that their ancestors brought Africans to this country, that they are sorry that Africans are not still in their homeland, that they are sorry that, even though slavery was excepted practice even among African tribes and in many other countries, that we as a country should not have practised slavery. That they are sorry that the blacks living here are not still living in poverty or in jungles infested with disease while warring with other tribes or communities in the area in which they lived, for raising their standard of living, for educating them, for fighting a war to free them and for killing our own brothers and cousins to insure their freedom and equality in the war between the states.

    Well, my ancestors did not own slaves,,, of any race, so I for one do not have anything to apologize for.

  5. fitnahfree

    I am kinda suprised by some of the comments, because either people are in denial or they are truly insensitive to the overall effects of slavery. The African-American slave trade is like no other in history. It is the only time when the servant is totally stripped of an identity. The slave of America has no home. And the one they are forced to live in don’t want them there. It is like throwing away and old pair of shoes or something.

    America grew out of indentured servitude. However, most of them are able to blend into the overall American Identity. When the African-American becomes well adapted to the system he or she is then called articulate.

    Before the major move of outsourcing “Middle America” could careless about the influx of immigrant workers or the scale of minimum wage because. The lower class “free people” can clean their homes and watch their children. Now that the slice of pie is smaller and the number of people are increasing and fighting over crumbs, immigration and cheap labor becomes hot topics. Nonetheless, what happened to the people who were already left behind. The decendants of slaves, who are forced into low paying jobs and substandard living and where proud while believing that one day their children would not have to suffer the way they had. I agree the educational system sucks, the welfare system sucks, minimum wage is a joke. Someone ought to apologize for getting up every morning and feeling like they are entitled to their existence. People suffered and their children continue to suffer. Let’s not be niave..Unfortunately this is the hand we are dealt so lets try somehow, someway to make it work. If sticks and stones may break your bones words will never hurt…But may they can help.