WASHINGTON – Germany has apologized for its treatment of Jews in World War II. Australia has apologized to its aborigines. And Tony Blair has apologized to the Irish for Britain’s handling of the potato famine.
American presidents have come close to apologizing to African-Americans for slavery, and several have spoken of its evil. Soon, in a measure introduced by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), the House could finally apologize for slavery, Jim Crow segregation and the continuing legacy of discrimination against blacks.
As of last week, Cohen had collected 90 co-sponsors, many of them by sending separate letters to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Jewish caucus, and members from states that have considered or passed similar resolutions. “Slavery and Jim Crow laws were able to survive in our country because they were protected by the actions and acquiescence of the United States government, including Congress; we are still fighting their enduring legacies to this day,” the letters say.
As the effort proceeds in Washington, Alabama became the fourth Southern state yesterday to apologize. Gov. Bob Riley signed a resolution expressing “profound regret” for Alabama’s role in slavery and apologizing for slavery’s wrongs and its lingering effects. “Slavery was evil and is a part of American history,” Riley said. “I believe all Alabamians are proud of the tremendous progress we have made and continue to make.”
Legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina have already approved apologies. Alabama’s resolution describes “centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices” and says “the vestiges of slavery are ever before African-American citizens.”
On Cohen’s effort, retired NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks said, “Anything we can do as a nation to heal the wounds that were inflicted, why, that’s good … It makes the nation look at the mistakes that were made, and acknowledge they were made, and says we recognize it’s not over yet, so that whatever we can do to alleviate it ought to be done.”
But the idea of an apology is not universally appreciated. Fred Lincoln of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said it doesn’t even make sense.
“There are no slaves left and there are no slaveholders, so this is silly,” he said.