U.S. House of Representatives Apologizes for Slavery

Well it’s about damn time:

The House on Tuesday issued an unprecedented apology to black Americans for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws.

“Today represents a milestone in our nation’s efforts to remedy the ills of our past,” said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

[…]

The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”

It says that Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.

Full text of the Cohen Resolution, H. Res 194 (courtesy the Thin Black Duke):

Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865; (Engrossed as Agreed to or Passed by House)

HRES 194 EH

H. Res. 194

In the House of Representatives, U. S.,

July 29, 2008.

Whereas millions of Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and the 13 American colonies from 1619 through 1865;

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;

Whereas after emancipation from 246 years of slavery, African-Americans soon saw the fleeting political, social, and economic gains they made during Reconstruction eviscerated by virulent racism, lynchings, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, and racial segregation laws that imposed a rigid system of officially sanctioned racial segregation in virtually all areas of life;

Whereas the system of de jure racial segregation known as `Jim Crow,’ which arose in certain parts of the Nation following the Civil War to create separate and unequal societies for whites and African-Americans, was a direct result of the racism against persons of African descent engendered by slavery;

Whereas a century after the official end of slavery in America, Federal action was required during the 1960s to eliminate the dejure and defacto system of Jim Crow throughout parts of the Nation, though its vestiges still linger to this day;

Whereas African-Americans continue to suffer from the complex interplay between slavery and Jim Crow–long after both systems were formally abolished–through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity, the frustration of careers and professional lives, and the long-term loss of income and opportunity;

Whereas the story of the enslavement and de jure segregation of African-Americans and the dehumanizing atrocities committed against them should not be purged from or minimized in the telling of American history;

Whereas on July 8, 2003, during a trip to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave port, President George W. Bush acknowledged slavery’s continuing legacy in American life and the need to confront that legacy when he stated that slavery `was . . . one of the greatest crimes of history . . . The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destiny is set: liberty and justice for all.’;

Whereas President Bill Clinton also acknowledged the deep-seated problems caused by the continuing legacy of racism against African-Americans that began with slavery when he initiated a national dialogue about race;

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;

Whereas the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has recently taken the lead in adopting a resolution officially expressing appropriate remorse for slavery and other State legislatures have adopted or are considering similar resolutions; and

Whereas it is important for this country, which legally recognized slavery through its Constitution and its laws, to make a formal apology for slavery and for its successor, Jim Crow, so that it can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all of its citizens: Now, therefore, be it

    Resolved, That the House of Representatives–
    • (1) acknowledges that slavery is incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal;
    • (2) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow;
    • (3) 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
    • (4) 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.

Attest:

Clerk.

Sure, simply saying sorry isn’t enough.  But it’s a start (key word: start — I’m curious to see what specific measures Congress will take in tackling “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”)

As Jill Tubman says:

Is it empty symbolism, you may ask? I don’t discount symbols which are powerful, especially when it comes to race in America. It’s good to see positive symbolism rather than negative symbolism come our way for once. And it instills confidence in our leaders when they can admit poor judgment and commit to better choices. Still, when the gov’t acknowledges oppressive, incorrect action — isn’t corrective, remedying action a reasonable expectation?

Related: More from Jack and Jill Politics on Rep. Steve Cohen (D – TN), the author of the resolution.

3 Responses to “U.S. House of Representatives Apologizes for Slavery”

  1. Fred F. says:

    Seems to me it was solved in 1863. A few hundred thousand Union soldiers died to end slavery.

    That’s payment enough, to those that were actually slaves. Those that want reparations now are merely freeloaders.

  2. apology not accepted now 40 acres i can get with that

  3. Kathy says:

    Seems to me it was solved in 1863. A few hundred thousand Union soldiers died to end slavery. That’s payment enough, to those that were actually slaves. Those that want reparations now are merely freeloaders.

    Well, of course it seems that way to you, Fred — because you are totally ignorant about this chapter of American history.

    First of all, Union soldiers did not die to end slavery. They died to keep the United States from splitting apart, which was happening not because of slavery but because of economic tensions between the agrarian South and the urban North. Slavery was an aspect, or an example, of how that economic conflict manifested itself, but it was not in and of itself the reason for the war. And it ended because the victor dictates the terms of the peace, which does not necessarily mean that any particular provision is why the war was fought in the first place.

    Second, slavery in point of fact ended only in the narrowest legal sense. Former slaves, apart from the very brief Reconstruction period, lived under white rule, with no rights and in complete and utter subjugation, for 100 years after the Civil War ended.

    Third, even if the Civil War *had* ended slavery in the sense that former slaves after 1865 enjoyed the same rights of freedom and democracy that their erstwhile owners did, that has absolutely nothing to do with reparations. The subject of reparations isn’t even relevant to the resolution the House just passed, since it was an apology, not a call for reparations, but setting that aside, if reparations were to be made to modern-day descendants of slaves, it would not be for the loss of physical freedom, atrocious as that was. It would be for the loss of income — for the money, the wages, that were stolen from slaves for over two centuries. No former slave was ever compensated for that theft (theft hardly seems like a strong enough word), although the former slaves’ *owners* were compensated — with cold hard cash — for the loss of their “property.”

    And why is that lost income relevant now, for the descendants of those former slaves? Well, one could say for reasons of simple justice, but there is a more substantive reason: The theft of enslaved Americans’ wages had an effect beyond the physical existences of the actual individuals who were freed from slavery. Their future earning power, and the future earning power of their children and grandchildren and great-children, etc., were negatively affected by the fact that for almost 250 years an entire people were forced to provide their labor gratis, and were deliberately denied the right to an education — even the most fundamental ability to read and write — as part of their enslaved condition. Even up to the present day — although obviously opportunities and social, political, and economic circumstances have vastly improved — the harms that were done to African-Americans by those centuries of forced unpaid labor and forced denial of access to the tools of learning, still linger. And they will continue to do so, until and unless this country gets serious about doing what’s required to mitigate those harms.

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