Unforgiven

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.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 2000
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