The Common Good
September-October 2000

Unforgiven

by Tony P. Hall | September-October 2000

Why we should apologize for slavery.

June 19—the day 135 years ago when the last Americans held captive learned of their freedom—has become the day celebrated in many black communities as their second Independence Day. Congress recently agreed that this "Juneteenth" celebration "is an important and enriching part of the country's history and heritage, and it provides an opportunity for all Americans to learn more about their common past and to better understand the experiences that have shaped the United States." President Clinton considered making Juneteenth a national holiday.

Over the years, Congress has taken many steps with an eye on race issues. Most have been proud strides forward. Some have been notorious leaps backward. But not one has been an apology for slavery itself, for a Constitution and laws that encouraged this "peculiar institution" that few now dispute is the greatest stain on our country's history.

As representatives of the American people, Congress bears a particular responsibility for what rightly has been called America's original sin. Most of the people who built the nation's Capitol and the White House—symbols of freedom—were slaves. The calculation used to count slaves as three-fifths of a person was a cold, political one upon which congressional representation and our tax system were based.

Even after the 13th Amendment was adopted, at the end of the Civil War, Congress continued to enact laws—and commit sins of omission—that sustained the terrible legacies of slavery until the civil rights movement. In recent years, our nation has apologized to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, and to native Hawaiians for overthrowing their king a century ago. Others have admitted their regret for Ireland's famine, for Holocaust atrocities, for crimes committed during Japan's colonial period, for Catholic violence, and for their nation's and church's role in the slave trade.

So why apologize now? Today, no slave or slaveholder is alive; indeed, most Americans are the descendants of people who came to the United States after slavery ended. True, we all can see the effects of racism. And the achievements of African Americans in overcoming slavery's evils stand as a source of tremendous inspiration for us all. But the successes of slaves and their descendants do not overwrite the failure of our country to grant all Americans their birthright: equality and the civil rights that safeguard freedom. Nor do policies pursued since slavery was abolished eliminate the need for an apology.

I was surprised to learn that our country, whose charter begins with the declaration that "all men are created equal," has never apologized for counting a black man as less than a man—as property, instead of human beings created in God's image. I have been even more surprised to see the reaction of the public and of policymakers to this simple proposal. I was disappointed that President Clinton's national conversation about race—which kindled real hopes for racial reconciliation, and made some progress—missed a golden opportunity to address slavery and its legacy head-on by making this apology.

In our work on race issues, it is clear that Americans' have an unshakable faith that there are solutions to the problems that bedevil us. But it is also apparent that we believe the answers will be easy. I've seen this over and over when it comes to fighting hunger. People want to help end suffering or right what is wrong—but it is as hard to know what to do about poverty as it is to know the right answers on affirmative action and other policies. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to difficult questions.

From the time slaves were first brought to the United States, Americans' feet were set on different paths—paths determined by the color of their skin. If we are to travel toward a common future, we owe it to our children to mark that early fork in the road "wrong way."

Asking for forgiveness, seeking repentance, and pursuing reconciliation are integral components of all faiths. We are commanded not only to forgive as we have been forgiven, but to reconcile with those who hold something against us. God wants us to overcome our divisions; nothing good has ever come from failing at that.

An apology is a beginning. We may not know what comes next, but that should not determine whether we do the right thing at this juncture if we are sincere in our desire to heal this festering wound.

Tony P. Hall was a U.S. representative from Ohio when this article appeared.

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