Harkin: An Apology For Slavery
Iowa’s Sen. Tom Harkin spoke on June 18th in support of a bill that made an official government apology to black Americans for slavery in the United States, and for the government’s long failure to act against it. I am proud that one of my state’s Senators was a key mover in the apology. Every time America honestly faces the dark sides of its past, we become a better people.
Does it end racial division? Of course not. But, as with all trauma, healing only happens in small steps. Words are always part of those steps. Some may say “Talk is cheap, nothing is solved, this Senate didn’t cause slavery anyway.” But we are responsible for our history, and I’ll take an apology over official silence any day.
Today, Senator Tom Harkin delivered remarks on the Senate Floor just prior to the passage of S. Con. Res. 26, which he introduced and co-sponsored. The transcript follows.
“Madam President, the clerk just read for the first time ever in this body what we should have done a long time ago. An apology for slavery and the Jim Crow laws which, for a century after emancipation, deprived millions of Americans their basic human rights, equal justice under law and equal opportunities. Today the Senate will unanimously make that apology.
“I, first of all, want to thank my friend, Senator Sam Brownback, for all of his hard work and over the last couple of years working together to get this finally to this point. I can’t thank him enough. He wouldn’t give up and stuck in there all the time working to make sure that this day would come. And I thank him profusely for his help in this effort. I also want to publicly thank Congressman Steve Cohen on the House side, who is the leader of this resolution that they will be passing soon over there.
“John Quincy Adams once remarked our country began existence by the universal emancipation of man from the thralldom of man.” America’s purpose can be summed up in that one powerful sentence. “We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As we all know, for too long, many in this country were not free. Many lived in bondage. Many Americans were denied their basic human rights and liberty.
“From 1619 to 1865, over 4 million Africans and their descendents were enslaved in the United States. Millions were kidnapped from their homeland, suffered unimaginable hardships including death during the voyage to America. A crime against humanity. In Elmina Castle, on the coast of Ghana, a place I recently visited, there is a chillingly named “door of no return.” An infamous open portal which, as one looks over the horizon across the Atlantic, makes all too clear the excruciating inhumanity and horror faced by the men and women shackled inside this castle as they were led through that door and put on the slave ships bound for America. Led through that door enslaved, never to return to their families, their tribe or their native land.
“On American soil these individuals were treated as property. These human beings were denied basic rights, including the right to their own name and heritage, any rights to education, even the right to maintain a family were denied to them. As Chief Justice Taney sadly made all too clear in the infamous Dred Scott case, he said of African-Americans, and I quote from his decision,
[Were] not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and [could] therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those held the power and the Government might choose to grant them.
One of the saddest decisions ever made by the Supreme Court of the United States.
“While the reconstruction amendments, the 13th amendment banning slavery, the 14th amendment granting full citizenship to all slaves, and the 15th amendment guaranteeing the right to vote supposedly signaled equality for all, widespread oppression continued. Jim Crow laws, African-Americans were denied voting rights, denied employment opportunities, denied access to public accommodations, denied entry into military service, denied criminal justice protections, denied housing, denied education, denied police protection, denied due process. In short, denied their very humanity.
“Not until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other federal protections did legal — legal — segregation effectively cease in this country. The destructive effects of both slavery and Jim Crow remain, however. As President Bush noted, “the racial bigotry did not end with slavery.” President Clinton stated that the racial divide is “America’s constant curse.” Today many African-Americans remained mired in poverty. Average incomes remain below that of white Americans. There remains an achievement gap in education and, for many, health conditions. African-Americans bear a disproportionate burden of disease and injury and death and disability. African-Americans are more over disproportionately involved with the criminal justice system in our prisons.
Recently states — Alabama, Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia — enacted resolutions apologizing for the role their states played in sanctioning and promoting slavery and segregation. Corporations, such as J.P. Morgan, Aetna and Wachovia, have also acknowledged and apologized for their role in and profit from slavery.
Slavery, Jim Crow laws, and their lasting consequences, however, are an enduring national shame. It was the United States that enshrined slavery in the Constitution and protected it for nearly a century. It is Congress that passed the shameful laws such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which protected and furthered slavery. It was our nation’s Supreme Court which bolstered slavery and legally sanctioned segregation, as I said, in the Dred Scott case of 1857 and Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. The Supreme Court said we could be separate but equal. It was the federal government which was officially segregated. By 1913, all federal departments were officially — officially — segregated. It was the United States which kept African-Americans, who wanted nothing more than to serve their country, segregated in the military. And it wasn’t until 1948 that President Truman issued the executive order desegregating the military.
“Presidents have acknowledged the injustice of slavery. President Clinton spoke of the evils of slavery and expressed regret for America’s role in the slave trade, President Bush visited Gorey Island, a holding place for captured slaves in Africa and spoke of the wrongs and injustices of slavery calling it “one of the great crimes of history.” Moreover, in 1988, Congress rightly apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In1993, Congress justly apologized to native Hawaiians for overthrowing their king. The Senate has correctly apologized for its failure to enact anti-lynching legislation. And last year, as part of the Indian Health Bill, the Senate passed an amendment apologizing, rightfully so, to Native Americans.
Yet, this Congress has never offered a formal apology for slavery and Jim Crow, and it’s long past due. A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice. So it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws.
As we acknowledge and apologize for this great injustice, we would be remiss, however, to fail to recognize those Americans who with great courage fought to ensure that country lived up to its founding ideals. Thousands risked their lives so others could be free.
From the beginning of the republic to the present, people of all races, genders and creeds and religion have risked much, including their lives, striving for a better and more just America. It is these often nameless individuals who registered the voters in the Mississippi delta, who marched over the bridge in Selma, fought for better jobs and housing in northern cities and desegregated the lunch counters.
I point to people like Edna Griffen, John Bibbs, and Leonard Hudson. They entered a drugstore on a hot summer day in Des Moines, Iowa, and sat at a segregated lunch counter. When the manager refused to serve them because the store did not — quote — “serve coloreds” Miss Griffen refused to leave. Outraged Iowans responded. And they won. Edna Griffen won. The lunch counters were desegregated and who — who — but a handful knows of Edna Griffen or John Bibbs or Leonard Hudson? It is only because of the extraordinary acts of bravery by ordinary Americans like these, in all corners of this country, that the mightiest walls of oppression have been torn down.
“As this nation formally apologizes and acknowledges slavery and Jim Crow, we must also recognize that this nation owes these individuals, most known to only their friends and their family, an enormous debt of gratitude.
As we make this formal apology, moreover, we must acknowledge and celebrate the deep lasting contributions that slaves, former slaves, and their descendants have made to this country in every field of human endeavor: law, literature, science, medicine, arts, business, education, sports, politics. Indeed, the list goes on and on. And six months ago an African-American took the oath of office as President of the United States for the first time in our nation’s history.
“In conclusion, I want to read from the resolution so all those in the gallery and the American people will hear the long overdue words emanating from this body. Congress:
- acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws;
- 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 laws;
- and expresses its recommitment that the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.
“In closing, I think it’s important to note that this resolution will soon pass by unanimous consent, which means every senator supports it without objection.
“Finally, let us make no mistake: this resolution will not fix lingering injustices. While we are proud of this resolution and believe it is long overdue, the real work lies ahead. Let us continue to work together to create better opportunities for all Americans. That is truly the best way to address the lasting legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.
“Madam President, I yield the floor.”
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