Slavery: The Politics of Apology
Today, the House issued an unprecedented apology to black Americans for the wrongs committed against them and ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws. Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that that have aided discrimination and segregations since emancipation. The resolution committed the House to setting right the lingering consequences of laws drafted against blacks after slavery was abolished and followed by Jim Crow laws.
Lawmakers have issued apologies to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. As recently as 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws. Many past proposals in Congress have died, largely out of concerns for damages.
Slavery and Jim Crow were declared as stains on the nation. The declaration was made as a “resolution as we have before us today where we face up to our mistakes and apologize as anyone should apologize for things that were done in the past that were wrong.”
How did this change of heart come about? The resolution was passed by voice vote and the work of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district. Why? Cohen faces an African-American challenger in a primary election next week.
Since Cohen was elected in 2006 as the first white to represent a majority black district in Memphis after more than three decades. He has been reaching out ever since despite some opposition by a few people outside his district. For example, an African-American minister from Murfreesboro distributed a flier in Memphis claiming that as a Jew, Cohen and other Jews hated Jesus. Cohen also sought to join the Congressional Black Caucus until it was determined that his attempt was against the rules. One of his first acts as a Congressman was to introduce a slavery apology resolution.
For undisclosed reasons, the Senate was unable to join in the resolution. Perhaps they felt the sting of chagrin on this issue. The resolution may in fact be rooted in politics, but the appearance of the truth in the resolutions’ origins does not appear to be hypocritical. At least the nation has a politician that has consistently tried to do something larger than himself that has the capacity for good. As a Jewish man, Cohen can identity. What about you? Many may feel a resolution does little, but can we agree that it should be a step toward a greater national healing rather than fomenting more trouble and tension? Apology accepted? That remains to be seen.