New Jersey recently became the first Northern state to issue an apology for slavery, which claimed the lives of millions of African people “imported” to North America since the 17th century. In 1865, when slavery was abolished with the victory of the United States of America over the slaveholder-controlled Confederate States of America in the Civil War, there were nearly 4 million people in bondage.
Slavery was a lucrative business connected to the development of capitalism as it expanded in the first half of the 19th century, linking New York bankers with Mississippi plantation owners. Slave workers produced major cash crops: tobacco, sugar and especially cotton for the developing textile industry. Most of the value created by U.S exports before the Civil War was produced by slave labor.
Also, Native Americans were driven off their lands as part of Andrew Jackson’s murderous “Indian removal” policy of forced relocation to make way for the development of large slave plantations.
The slaveholder class dominated the slave states and exercised power over the federal government, largely through the presidency. Of the first 16 U.S. presidents, eight were slaveholders, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Jackson and Polk. Polk annexed Texas and conquered the Mexican northwest in the Mexican-American War, which abolitionists saw as a war on behalf of the slave power.
The cruelties of slavery are too great to summarize, but it should be remembered that slave workers were treated, in effect, as farm animals, bought and sold, beaten when they didn’t work up to expectations, and fed and clothed at the lowest level necessary to keep them working. The system denied the humanity of the slave workers in order to both shield and justify the inhumanity of the slave owners.
It took a revolutionary civil war to end slavery, but its social consequences didn’t end. The struggle for the civil rights of millions of former slave workers was lost in the late 1870s as Northern capitalists, who had fought the war to gain hegemony over the slaveholder class, not to “free the slaves,” concluded that their main enemy now was an alliance of former slaves and poor whites in the South and potential solidarity of whites and Blacks in the developing Northern labor movement.
With federal indifference and a pro-big-business Supreme Court’s blessing, Ku Klux Klan terror and “conservative” white supremacy governments created a racist dictatorship in the former slave states based on segregation in all public life from education and transportation to public bathrooms; voter disenfranchisement; and removal of African Americans from police forces, juries and general citizenship participation. Poll taxes also reduced the civil rights of poor whites, who were encouraged to blame Blacks for their problems, as in slavery times.
As the 20th century opened, slavery was seen nationally as an issue of the past. Many former slave states flew the Confederate flag in courtrooms and over state capitols with impunity. Lincoln freed the slaves in the 1860s and that ended the issue, generations of Americans were taught. One could celebrate Lincoln’s birthday and forget what was going on in contemporary America, both South and North.
Today, in the 21st century, Americans are taught that Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement ended segregation in the 1960s and established equal rights. One can celebrate King’s birthday and forget about institutional and ideological racism, both North and South.
New Jersey’s apology helps Americans remember both slavery and, by implication, the segregation and racist terror that followed the defeat of Reconstruction.
Other states and Congress should issue apologies as well. The Supreme Court might even issue an apology for its Dred Scott decision, and its rulings in the 1880s and 1890s reversing Reconstruction civil rights laws and supporting segregation and de facto disenfranchisement. Most of all, the U.S should revive affirmative action policies, which began in the 1960s to eradicate the crippling effects of institutional racism, slavery’s real “legacy.”
History is about learning from the past to apply that knowledge in the present and build a progressive future. Along with its recent abolition of the death penalty, New Jersey’s formal apology for the horrors of slavery should be emulated at all levels throughout the country. It is a step in the right direction and, like ending the death penalty, it is what one should expect as right conduct from a civilized society.
Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.