Words aren’t enough, actions to correct Black America’s condition needed, say reparations advocates
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com) – A mere 143 years, one month and 10 days after the last official day of slavery in the United States, the U.S. House of Representatives issued an apology to Blacks in this country for the wrongs they and their ancestors suffered under 310 years of chattel slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow segregation laws.
The “sense of the Congress” resolution—which does not carry the force of law, even if the Senate passes its own version of the apology—passed by voice vote July 29. Slavery ended officially in the country on June 19, 1865—a day named “Juneteenth” by the Freedmen—when the slaves in Galveston, Texas, were set free by a column of U.S. troops.
“Today represents a milestone in our nation’s efforts to remedy the ills of our past,” Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus declared.
The measure, which garnered 120 congressional co-sponsors, including two Republicans, was led by Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-Tenn.), the only White member of Congress who represents a majority Black District. Mr. Cohen faces a strong challenge in a primary in early August from Nikki Tinker, a Black attorney in Memphis, who has the support of several members of the CBC.
The resolution says Africans who were forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage,” and that Blacks today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery.
The House of Representatives “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow,” the resolution reads in part.
“The fact that this government has not apologized to its own citizens, African Americans, for the institution of slavery and for the Jim Crow laws that followed, and accepted that fact and encouraged changes in our dialogue and understanding in the actions of this country to rectify that is certainly a mistake. And today, we rectify that mistake,” Mr. Cohen said on the House floor.
The action is less about his personal political future than it is the beginning of the national atonement process for the evils of slavery, he said. “When people commit injustices and do bad things, they ought to apologize and ask for forgiveness,” Mr. Cohen said. “Just be a good human being. Countries should operate in the same manner. Slavery is abhorrent.”
“An apology certainly is an acknowledgment that a harm was done, a grievous injury was suffered and a trauma was endured but what do we do about reconstituting Black America so that the potential for us to realize our total ambition as a people will be put in place?” said Michael Eric Dyson, an author and professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Words are not enough deeds must follow, he said.
“Reparations are certainly one of the signals that America can send if they are serious about reconstituting American culture,” Dr. Dyson continued. America rebuilt Europe after destroying it and Asian Americans and Jews were rightly compensated for their suffering, he said.
House joins list of apologists
Several states, cities, and even corporations—including Aetna, J. P. Morgan Chase-Manhattan, Wachovia, as well as the Southern Baptist Convention—have also issued apologies for slavery. But a similar proposal in Congress—sponsored in 2000 by former Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio), who is also White—was not adopted, in part over concern by some that an official apology would intensify longstanding demands by Blacks for reparation payments for the centuries of free labor by millions of slaves, and for the damages suffered under the cruel “peculiar institution” and its aftermath. In 2005, the Senate apologized for not enacting anti-lynching laws.
“The discussion of race is a sensitive, difficult issue, even today in our society, and of course the apology is not the end of the story,” said Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), chair of the House Judiciary Committee and sponsor of H.R. 40, a bill establishing a U.S. commission to study the effects of slavery and the potential value to the country of making reparations payments. “But it does reaffirm our national commitment to understanding and addressing, in the words of the resolution, how to rectify the ‘lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow,’ and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future,” Mr. Conyers continued.
Although the resolution does not mention reparations, groups supporting the cause applauded the action. Rep. Cohen first submitted the slavery apology—H.R. 194—in Feb. 2007, shortly after he won the seat formerly held by Rep. Harold Ford Jr., and he “remained consistent with the bill,” according to Kibibi Tyehimba, the Female Co-Chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (NCOBRA). Mr. Cohen has also been a co-sponsor of H.R. 40 as well, Ms. Tyehimba told The Final Call.
“This resolution is very important because it does acknowledge the tremendous history of slavery and Jim Crow in the United States, and it also does acknowledge that the systems and institutions, the mindset and all those things that stem from the era of enslavement and Jim Crow are still with us today, and they are still impacting African Americans lives.
“It also resolves that there should be a commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow, and very importantly and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future. That does not say specifically anything about reparations, but it also is important language, because it does not exclude it,” Ms. Tyehimba continued.
‘They’re admitting to a crime against humanity’
Dr. Joy Degruy Leary, a Portland-based psychologist and assistant professor at Portland State University, took a dim view of an apology without a remedy for past wrongs.
“What’s clear is that reparations is something that has legal precedent, but it’s a political storm and game that’s going on. And for you to say ‘you’re sorry’, when we already knew, and for you to say that ‘we know that you continue to suffer,’ it’s just insulting,” commented Dr. Leary.
“And shame on us as Black people for not addressing and responding to this en mass, but we don’t know who we are and if you don’t know who you are, you even don’t have the wherewithal to know that you have to find a true ending. I don’t suspect that you’re going to get some miraculous consciousness as a result of this, but what we should do is galvanize because they’re admitting to a crime against humanity, wholeheartedly, and basically saying we aren’t going to do anything about it.Shame on us as Black people if we sit there and go, ‘Oh thanks.’
“What happens now is the next logical piece because your dialogue with me is ‘I’m sorry.’I don’t care about dialoguing about it because this is nothing new for us.White people always want to dialogue but they don’t want to change the hand of power.You haven’t done anything for me because you’ve said you’re sorry, and I don’t believe you’re sorry because you continue to do the same behavior,” argued Dr. Leary. She just returned from Ghana and her most recently published work is “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.”
While applauding the resolution, Ms. Tinker questioned Mr. Cohen’s motive. “I think an apology for the atrocities of slavery was long overdue,” she said in a statement. “But I find it very interesting that Mr. Cohen would call for a national apology during a heated election when he clearly needs African American votes. For over 20 years while serving in the Tennessee General Assembly, he never thought to ask the state of Tennessee for an apology, not once,” she said.
Previously, Congress has apologized and made reparation payments to Japanese Americans for interning them in concentration camps during World War II; apologized to indigenous Hawaiians for overthrowing their kingdom in 1893; and to Native Americans for atrocities against them that many charge border on genocide.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) also applauded the House action. “Before you can heal, you’ve got to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s basic Psychology 101,” said Rep. Lee. “If you hurt somebody and don’t say, ‘I’m sorry,’ how can you move on?”
The inclusion of wording referring to Jim Crow was important, the measure’s supporters insist, because Congress stood by for decades as southern states created separate and very unequal societies by force of law, segregating schools, neighborhoods, hotels, eating establishments, water fountains, waiting rooms, even toilets.
Dr. Leary maintained the apology should be placed in a proper context. “This year marks the 200th year of the end of the slave trade, which was largely ignored by America, Americans, Blacks; everybody is just not tracking that, whereas other countries are at least paying lip service to the relevance of the end of the slave trade.So America is in deep trouble around the world.Everybody hates America, the American dollar is falling, for instance, the Ghanaian cedi is equal to the American dollar, or a little less than, but a few of years ago it was like $100 million to one,” she noted.
“We’ve got to be careful and look at the timing of this apology, number one.They’ve served to (Barack) Obama the question of reparations, with the intent of alienating either one or both communities, no matter what his response is,” she said.
Sen. Obama, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president, has said the best form of reparations would be jobs and access to education and downplayed any official apology. “Whether it’s Native American issues, whether it’s African American issues and reparations, the most important thing for the U.S. government to do is not just to offer words, but to offer deeds,” he said, in a July 27 appearance at the Unity journalists of color conference in Chicago.
Reparations is a realistic way to heal Black America and if others think it’s not, Blacks must ensure that it is seen as a viable tool, said Dr. Dyson, who was also in Chicago Aug. 2 for the Black Women’s Expo.
Dorothy Tillman, a former Chicago alderwoman and reparations advocate, said the U.S. government and corporations were complicit in slavery. Both should be prepared to pay reparations to the descendents of enslaved Africans in America, she said in an interview, before an Aug. 2 panel discussion at the Black Women’s Expo in Chicago.
The apology shows recognition of the atrocities done to Blacks in America and the House should pass Rep. Conyers’ bill to study the impact of slavery on Blacks, she continued. The wealth of corporations like J.P. Morgan and Lehman Brothers came from slavery and the stock market evolved out of the slave trade, she noted. “They are enjoying the wealth built on our backs,” she said.
Reparations should be paid to rebuild Black neighborhoods, to build an economic base and offer things like free education and health care, Ms. Tillman said. “No one ever tells the Jews the Holocaust happened a long time ago and no one ever tells them to stop talking about it. Our holocaust was just as great or greater. We still suffer from post-trauma slavery syndrome that has never been addressed,” she said.
(Ashahed Muhammad and Charlene Muhammad contributed to this report.)