An official apology for slavery and Jim Crow from the U.S. House of Representatives provoked mixed emotions in Philadelphia last week.
For J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, the apology was a publicity stunt.
“It’s too late, too little,” said Mondesire. “It was a stunt.”
Emphasizing that he was speaking personally and not for the NAACP, he continued by saying that a more appropriate gesture would be “a serious conversation about reparations. But I don’t think that will happen.”
The House formally apologized to African-Americans and their ancestors for slavery July 29. The House of Representatives acted alone with the Senate remaining silent.
For Karen Warrington, a spokeswoman for Rep. Bob Brady, the vote was a first step.
“I think that the vote was a step in the right direction and that America has to acknowledge the evils of slavery,” said Warrington, she was speaking personally, not as Brady’s representative.
If the apology opens a dialogue on slavery and its evils, then it will have been a good thing. The road to real healing will be long and complicated, she said, but it is necessary.
“The problem is complex, but you have to take the first step and acknowledgment, in terms of any kind of wrong, is a critical part of the healing process,” Warrington said.
Radio talk show host Bill Anderson was unimpressed.
“I think it’s kind of silly,” he said. “I think that it’s a symbolic gesture that isn’t going to mean anything.”
He found it ironic that the apology came from a legislative body that has the power to affect real change but hasn’t.
“It would be nice if they were spending the time addressing unemployment rates, the lack of opportunity,” he said. “It was about somebody who was trying to get re-elected. All you do is clear somebody’s guilt and you initiate no real change. I wasn’t impressed.”
Rep. Chaka Fattah said he was pleased that his colleagues finally acknowledged the suffering of slaves and their descendants.
“I am pleased that my colleagues saw fit to address an issue so sensitive to so many Americans. This apology has been much awaited and long overdue,” said Fattah.
Other Black lawmakers echoed Fattah.
“(This) represents a milestone in our nation’s efforts to remedy the ills of our past,” said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, a White lawmaker who represents a majority Black district, proposed the resolution. Cohen faces a formidable Black challenger in a primary face-off this week.
It is not the first time Congress has issued an apology. It has formally apologized to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.
Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations—payment for damages.
The apology made no mention of reparations. It did say the House would rectify “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”
On slavery it said that Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that Black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.
The House “apologize(d) 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.”
Cohen said, “Slavery and Jim Crow are stains upon what is the greatest nation on the face of the earth...Part of forming a more perfect union, he said, “is such a resolution as we have before us today where we face up to our mistakes and apologize as anyone should apologize for things that were done in the past that were wrong.”
More than a dozen of the 42 Congressional Black Caucus members in the House were original co-sponsors of the measure.