Iowa Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin thus spoke truth to power on Thursday when he stood in the chambers of the United States Senate and called for and got, from his colleagues, a formal renunciation of the great American evil.
In a nonbinding resolution co-sponsored by Harkin and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and adopted unanimously, the so-called world’s greatest deliberative body formally apologized for slavery and its malignant stepchild, the segregationist Jim Crow laws that poisoned this nation for generations.
"So, it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws." Harkin continued.
The action, which came by voice vote, occurred 44 years after passage of the Voting Rights Act, 45 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act, and more than 144 years after the end of the Civil War.
"A wrong of segregation was done by the federal government of the United States of America, and we acknowledge that," Brownback said. "We say it was wrong, and we ask forgiveness for that."
◊ ◊ ◊
But it didn’t come without some rhetorical strings attached. Because some Republicans and conservative Democrats apparently had concerns about the potential for such a resolution being manipulated by supporters of reparations for African Americans, the resolution included this language, a disclaimer:
“Nothing in this resolution (A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or (B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”
The resolution on slavery passed by the House last summer contains no such fine print. And for some in and out of Congress, that’s a big problem.
“Putting in a disclaimer takes away from the meaning of an apology,” Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson told McClatchy Newspapers. “A number of us are prepared to vote against it.'”
Randall Robinson, a founder of the TransAfrica Forum and the author of "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," told The Washington Post that he viewed the Senate's apology as a “confession” that should lead to a next step of reparations. “Much is owed, and it is very quantifiable,” he said. “It is owed as one would owe for any labor that one has not paid for, and until steps are taken in that direction we haven't accomplished anything.”
Democratic Rep. Stephen Cohen of Tennessee, who helped shepherd the resolution through the Senate, tried to be circumspect and comprehensive about the measure. On MSNBC’s “Hardball” on Thursday Cohen said the apology “starts a process, a process I hope is a dialogue that makes people understand the effects and ramifications of slavery and Jim Crow.”
Those effects, he said, “are great. I see them in my district, I see them in the United States of America, and I think a dialogue can and should begin. … We have not apologized for the greatest sin this country has committed.”
The House is expected to revisit the issue next week to debate conforming its resolution from last summer to the Senate version.
◊ ◊ ◊
We’ve been here before, of course. In 1988, Congress apologized to Japanese Americans forced to live in internment camps in the Western United States during World War II. In 2005, the Senate adopted a resolution apologizing for its history over two centuries of filibustering legislation intended to prevent the lynching of African Americans.
And just last year, the Senate tiptoed closer to the line it appeared to cross on Thursday when it adopted an amendment apologizing for the nation’s brutality against Native Americans. All of which deeply beg the question of why it took the so-called world's greatest deliberative body so long to deliberate the obvious.
For some in the blogosphere, it’s revisiting an issue that shouldn’t even be an issue. Fatima Lahlaoui (ProudMuslim), commenting on the matter at NPR’s Web site:
To those who oppose such programs and even the idea of reparations:
Imagine if a significant chunk of YOUR own people were captured by hundreds of thousands, millions, by a superior power, taken to a distant foreign land, enslaved as economic, sexual, and more slaves by the rulers and citizens of that land, then following those centuries of enslavement, were subjected to another century of hard segregation and apartheid regime...
Question to you: in what shape and in what circumstances do you think your people would be after that kind of a historical treatment? Truth is you can never do enough to even start repairing that kind of a genocidal crime.
But if “justice” actually means something to the US, they can try.
Harkin of Iowa and Brownback of Kansas deserve at least nominal credit for moving to act against a foundational stain on the national character — however late in the national history that action’s taking place. But the needless disclaimer attached to the Senate resolution makes it in another way a typically American document: one with an asterisk tied to fine print that dilutes and compromises the impact of the document it’s attached to.
Image credits: Harkin: U.S. Senate photo; Examiner front page, 1942; Peter, a whipped slave, Baton Rouge, La., April 1863. All: Public domain.