At two minutes before noon on Thursday, June 18, 2009, 146 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 150 days after a black man took the presidential oath of office, the United States Senate, in a unanimous voice vote, apologized to African Americans for slavery and the racial discrimination during the Jim Crow era. It’s about damn time!
Introduced by Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, and co-sponsored by 21 other senators, the resolution acknowledged that it is important “for the people of the United States, who legally recognized slavery through the Constitution and the laws of the United States, to make a formal apology for slavery and for its successor, Jim Crow, so they can move forward and seek reconciliation, justice, and harmony for all people of the United States.”
Who could disagree with that?
And so the Congress, “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 laws.”
Apology accepted. But what’s taken so long? I know it is Constitutionally enshrined that the Senate is to act slowly, deliberately; that it is to be neither impetuous nor impulsive, but even by the most extreme standards, this was a ridiculously long deliberation — 150 years is a longtime.
Of course, everyone would grant that an earlier apology without the hard work that has been done to end discrimination and racial injustice would have been a particularly empty gesture. So on this one, as with most things, actual hard work and progress counts more than just words. At least with Barack Obama in the White House, there is an argument to be made that the apology is sincere. One of the reasons for the delay was the complicated and complicating idea of reparations for slavery. Some have worried that the existence of an official apology would only strengthen the case for reparations; time, it seems, has just diminished those concerns.
Still the Senate was careful to address some of those concerns. The Senate resolution differs from the one passed by the House last summer, in that it includes a disclaimer that reads: “Nothing in this resolution— (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.” So forget any reparations claims based on this particular apology.
While the apology is official, it does not have the force of law. The President does not have to sign it allowing him whatever distance he needs from the debate. But both Presidents Clinton and Bush made a point to condemn the legacy of slavery with President Bush describing it as “one of the great crimes of history.”
Comments from the floor were predictably moving and contrite. Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback said that with the resolution, the Senate was, on behalf of the American people, not just saying sorry, but also asking for forgiveness.
Harkin noted the historic quality of the moment: “The clerk just read for the first time ever in this body what we should have done a long time ago — an apology for slavery and the Jim Crow laws which for a century after emancipation deprived millions of Americans their basic human rights, equal justice under law and equal opportunities.”
The apology notes that Africans were "were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and noted that “the system of slavery and the visceral racism against people of African descent upon which it depended became enmeshed in the social fabric of the United States.”
We know that problems remain. The resolution wisely acknowledges such: “African-Americans continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws—long after both systems were formally abolished—through enormous damage and loss, both tangible and intangible, including the loss of human dignity and liberty.”
Shockingly late timing aside, there are passages of inescapable truth in the resolution that make it worth reading. It says, for example, that “an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of the wrongs committed and a formal apology to African-Americans will help bind the wounds of the Nation that are rooted in slavery.”
Yes, there are still wounds to be bound, and they are not all symbolic. The recent sub-prime mortgage crisis is reminder enough, for anyone who needs reminding. But that’s another debate. Another resolution.
Terence Samuel is Deputy Editor of The Root.