Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Why Congress' slavery apology falls short

By DeWayne Wickham

Last week, the U.S. Senate apologized for slavery and the Jim Crow century that followed. But like the House of Representatives, which passed a similar resolution last July, it failed to give a detailed confession of its complicity in this great crime.

Instead, the Senate followed the House's lead and simply bemoaned the mistreatment of millions of blacks who were forced into slavery from 1619 through 1865. It didn't say anything about what Congress did — or didn't do — to aid and abet that "peculiar institution."

That's not good enough. For the sake of history and closure, Congress needs to describe the full nature of its offenses in support of slavery and the century-long period of legal disenfranchisement of blacks that followed. Too many people in this country have little knowledge of the legal cover Congress gave slavery. Too few people understand how Congress perpetuated the suffering of blacks long after the 13th Amendment ended slavery.

The apologies passed by the House and Senate, and the joint resolution that's expected to come soon, amount to a guilty plea. As in a criminal case where a defendant cops a plea, Congress should be forced to give a detailed confession of its crimes against blacks.

It should acknowledge how the 1820 Missouri Compromise and the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act reduced slavery to a political balancing act. The purpose of these federal laws was to keep the nation evenly divided between slave and free states — a heartless political calculation.

Congress should also acknowledge the harm it did to untold numbers of slaves when it passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which denied runaway slaves a jury trial and the right to testify in their own defense.

Even after slavery ended on Dec. 6, 1865, Congress refused to safeguard black voting rights. In 1891, a Senate filibuster killed a bill that would have placed national elections under federal control to stop Southern states from denying blacks the right to vote. It took 74 years for Congress to undo that wrong with passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

It took even longer for Congress to right the wrong it did to Harriet Tubman. An escaped slave, she worked during the Civil War as a Union army spy and scout. But she never got a pension for her military service. In 2003, Congress agreed to pay Tubman's estate $11,750 — the value of a widow's pension that she should have gotten for her husband's military service.

And here's something else Congress must own up to. In 1901 — a year in which 105 blacks were lynched — the House killed this country's first anti-lynching bill. The legislation would have made lynchings a federal offense and increased the possibility that such crimes would have resulted in a trial and conviction. Nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress, but not one was ever enacted. Four years ago, the Senate apologized for its failure to pass an anti-lynching bill.

From 1902 through 1964, nearly 1,600 blacks were lynched in this country. And 99% of everyone involved in these lynchings escaped prosecution by state and local officials, the Senate said in its 2005 apology resolution.

In their sterile mea culpas, neither the House nor Senate have come close to admitting the role those bodies played in the sorry history they now decry. Until they do, their apology is a hollow act of political expediency.

And it should not be accepted.

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