Proposed apology for slavery is revived

Ga. congressman helps civil rights advocates in push for resolution

June 20, 2000|By COX NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Civil rights advocates, led by Rep. John Lewis, helped exhume yesterday a proposal to have Congress formally apologize for America's prominent role in slavery, nearly three years after the first attempt was buried beneath a torrent of hate mail.

Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, signed on as an original co-sponsor of a resolution that would have Congress apologize "to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against their ancestors who suffered as slaves."

The legislation also would have Congress "recognize the nation's need to redress these events."

"It is the right thing to do," Lewis said. "It is the fair thing to do. It is the just thing to do."

The resolution was written by Rep. Tony P. Hall, a Democrat from Ohio who first proposed the idea of having Congress apologize for slavery in 1997. Hall's first attempt didn't raise the issue of "redress" or reparations, which is why Lewis and other black leaders were cool to the idea three years ago.

The new resolution, introduced on the "Juneteenth" anniversary that is recognized as the day 135 years ago the last of America's slaves learned they'd been freed by the Civil War, would create a commission to study the historical economic impact of slavery.

The commission would explore the possibility of creating scholarships and a national monument to slavery, in addition to creating a foundation of information that could be used to develop a plan for reparations. Hall's legislation stops short of seeking reparations, but does ask Congress to express a "commitment to rectify misdeeds of slavery done in the past."

"Personally, I believe there ought to be some kind of reparation, some kind of restitution," Hall said. "I believe the apology is only the first step."

Lewis concurred.

"We must do more than ask to be forgiven," he said of Congress.

That element drew a contingent of black civil rights and religious leaders to support the new legislation at a news conference on the Capitol grounds. While Hall's original resolution was never formally addressed by the Congressional Black Caucus, Lewis said a "great majority" could be expected to endorse the new one.

"Black folk are tired of words without substance," said the Rev. Mark Pollard, president of the National Common Ground Coalition in Atlanta, an organization of religious and civil rights groups.

President Clinton visited Africa on an 11-day state visit in 1998 that including a stop at Goree Island off Senegal, a way station for slave traders hundreds of years ago.

The White House said Clinton will leave the matter to Congress.

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