The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill recently apologizing to African Americans for slavery and segregation. Authored by Steve Cohen, Democrat of Memphis, and co-sponsored by 120 representatives, House Resolution 194 apologizes for the ‘fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow’ segregation but does not address the issue of reparations.
Activists long have campaigned for such an apology, but faced resistance from politicians who feared the potential cost of reparations. Indeed, the Bush Administration objects to labeling slavery “a crime against humanity,” fearing it will generate lawsuits in the International Court of Justice.
Opposition to reparations is rooted in ignorance of African Americans’ historic role in U.S. economic development and misinformation about how descendants of slaves would be compensated. The millions of Africans who were enslaved in the U.S. did not simply provide manual labor but contributed their expertise and knowledge to American agriculture and industry. This debt to African Americans, activists argue, should be paid in the form of reparations invested in community development, educational institutions, and health programs, not as individual cash payments, as many mistakenly believe.
It is noteworthy that the House apology comes over 140 years since the emancipation of slaves and after a recent series of congressional acknowledgements of other crimes in American history. In February, for example, the Senate apologized for atrocities committed against Native Americans.
The House bill apologizing for slavery and segregation also follows a current trend of similar resolutions passed by state legislatures, including in Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia.
In an official statement, Cohen proclaimed: “I hope that this legislation can serve to open the dialogue on race and equality for all. Apologies are not empty gestures, but are a necessary first step towards any sort of reconciliation between people.”
In Cohen’s hometown of Memphis, reaction to his bill is predictably mixed. In an area of the country where some white Americans continue to gloss over the horrors of slavery and romanticize the confederate secession, some viewed Cohen’s bill as “pandering” to Memphis’ black majority. The mainstream media has highlighted the fact that the one-term representative, who is white and Jewish, faces two African American challengers in a primary on April 7. His main opponent is a corporate lawyer from Alabama named Nikki Tinker.
The majority of Memphians, however, praise Cohen for his initiative on the apology bill, and support for his re-election transcends the supposed racial divide constantly reinforced by the corporate media. Cohen has received endorsements from many prominent local African American leaders, including veteran civil rights activists, as well as support from labor unions.
As Representative John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus , explained in a radio interview in April, “[Cohen’s] taken care of business. And, you know, that’s in the spirit of what Dr. King was talking about, isn’t it? You know, you support the best person for the job, and he’s proven that he can do it.’
Cohen is predicted to win the primary battle next week but regardless of its outcome, his contribution towards helping right the wrongs of the past is appreciated by working Americans of all backgrounds.