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.