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House Issues An Apology For Slavery

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The House yesterday apologized to black Americans, more than 140 years after slavery was abolished, for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow" segregation.

The resolution, which passed on a voice vote late in the day, was sponsored by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a white Jew who represents a majority-black district in Memphis. Cohen tried unsuccessfully to join the Congressional Black Caucus this year.

"I hope that this is part of the beginning of a dialogue that this country needs to engage in, concerning what the effects of slavery and Jim Crow have been," Cohen said. "I think we started it and we're going to continue."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is considering introducing a companion measure in the Senate, he said.

Cohen faces a tough fight against airline lawyer Nikki Tinker, who is black, in the Democratic primary Aug. 7.

His measure was co-sponsored by 42 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the House majority whip; Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. None of those caucus members has endorsed his reelection bid.

A total of 120 lawmakers, including two Republicans, co-sponsored the resolution, Cohen said.

In February, the Senate apologized for atrocities committed against Native Americans, and the body apologized in 2005 for standing by during a lynching campaign against African Americans throughout much of the past century. Twenty years ago, Congress apologized for interning Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II.

Congress has considered a similar apology for the slavery and Jim Crow eras, a gesture long sought by African Americans. Such efforts were always bogged down by concerns that the apology would prompt a greater call for reparations for slavery.

In recent years, black activists seeking reparations for slavery have gotten private companies, such as banks, insurers and railroads, to apologize for playing a role in bankrolling, insuring, capturing and transporting slaves.

In 2005, Wachovia Corp. revealed that one bank it acquired had put thousands of slaves to work on a railroad. That same year, JPMorgan Chase apologized for the role that a subsidiary had played in using 10,000 slaves as collateral and accepting more than 1,000 slaves as payments when owners defaulted on loans.

Several states, including Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Alabama, have issued apologies for slavery.

"They had a greater moral authority on this issue than the United States Congress," Cohen said. "I'm proud we did this as a part of this Congress."


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