The Common Good

Slavery Apology--One Step Forward

I'm still "down under" -- wrapping up my book tour in Australia. The news from the U.S. reminds me of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s first act on the day after his swearing in as prime minister. In a moving speech, he delivered a speech of apology to the aboriginal people.

Tuesday, for the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed an official apology for slavery and segregation. Over the past few years, five southern states have apologized, but efforts in Congress had failed. Congress has issued apologies before, to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws. But never for slavery.

It is appropriate, because ultimately it was government policies that were both complicit in and directly responsible for this great inhumanity and injustice. Nobody alive in America today participated in slavery, many have no ancestors who did, and large numbers of families came to this land only after slavery was officially abolished -- but all white Americans have benefited from the poisonous legacy of slavery and discrimination.

The language of the resolution is clear on the importance of apologizing as a step forward. After recounting the evil of slavery, it concludes:

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 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.

I hope the Senate will quickly pass a parallel resolution and that President Bush will publicly endorse it. It would be an important day in U.S. history.

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