Between January 2007 and March 2008, six state legislatures passed resolutions of apology for their states’ involvement in America’s original sin of slavery. Five were Southern— Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. The sixth was New Jersey.
Why have these apologies come so late? For the five Southern states, the resolutions came only after the election of significant numbers of African Americans to state legislatures. In Alabama, for example, at the time of the 1965 Selma civil rights marches, there was not a single African American in the state assembly. Thanks in part to that year’s voting rights bill, by 2007 African Americans made up 25 percent of the body’s membership.
Some of the apologies’ key words—regret, contrition, acknowledgment, repentance, apology, reconciliation, healing—are central to Christian traditions. No serious Christian can doubt that sin has to be confessed to be forgiven. Legislatures need to confess that their predecessors put the seal of legality on slavery.
But an apology is only one element of healing in any fractured human relationship. The collective sin of slavery cries out for signals of collective repentance. As Maryland State Sen. Nathaniel Exum put it, “Once we have come to that recognition [of slavery], maybe we will also recognize steps we need to do to get rid of the lingering effects of it on the people.” In saying that, he was contradicting the often-made argument that an apology does not, in the explicit words of the Virginia resolution, “justify the imposition of new benefits or burdens”—that is, monetary reparations.
Getting rid of slavery’s “lingering effects” is a matter many whites in America prefer to overlook. As one opponent of the Alabama resolution put it, “It’s time to move forward.” Yes, but not so fast: The chains of America’s racist past still rattle in the lives of many descendants of those slaves.