Slavery and Segregation: The Horse Finally Catches the Cart

Allen Hunt
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Posted: Jun 21, 2009 8:55 PM

David Letterman took days to apologize for his crude mocking of the Palin family. America took a mere 150 years to apologize for the cruelty and savagery of slavery. No one ever suggested that Congress works quickly. Sadly,this long overdue apology will achieve nothing because it lacks the most important part of a healthy apology: a request for forgiveness.

Last week, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution apologizing for slavery. The House passed a similar resolution last year, so a joint resolution on behalf of the federal government should issue forth in the coming days. For the first time, the federal government will issue those healing words: “I am sorry.”

An apology for nearly 250 years of slavery. An apology for the reign of Jim Crow. An apology for treating our brothers and sisters as less than they are: fully human. An apology for treating human beings as property. Legislatures in five states have already taken a similar step, so to the Congress, I say, “Better late than never.” Now that the Civil War has been fought, the Emancipation Proclamation declared, and the civil rights movement waged, it seems a little odd for the apology to arrive now. The cart is well down the road; and finally, the horse is attached. How much better for all of us if America had apologized first and then worked to correct the egregious moral sin of slavery? But, even arriving late, at least it has arrived.

Unfortunately, the Senate's apology leaves out the crucial component of a healthy apology. That component is not reparations. The missing component is far more important because it alone can bring the reconciliation we all yearn for and desire. The missing component? The transfer of power in the vulnerable words: “Please forgive me.”

Some, like Clarence Page, say that this apology is too little, too late, issued so long after the fact as to be rendered meaningless. Others, like Charles Ogletree and Eugene Kane, suggest that a healthy apology will include restitution and reparation payments to descendants of slaves in America. A third group shouts from the rooftops and proclaims all America's race problems a distant memory, as if the election of a black president and the issuance of an apology can erase the deep racial stain contained within blacks and whites of America.

All three voices fail to see the whole picture. All three fail to grasp the significance of an apology.

Never underestimate the power of words. Words possess the power to heal. The power to transform. Forgiveness acts much like a spiritual version of the atom. A tiny atom, when harnessed, unleashes a power greater than any other known to man. In the same way, invisible to the human eye, the noun of forgiveness looses a power forceful enough to alter radically the landscape. When properly marshaled, forgiveness releases the deep-seated pain of a wrong. It frees both the victim and the the one who has injured him from the insidious power that has broken their relationship. Forgiveness liberates both the wronger and the wrongee.

An apology is a prerequisite for reconciliation. An apology for slavery moves the ball forward. It injects a new dimension into the American struggle to become all we were created to be. Equal and with liberty and justice for all.

In order to bring reconciliation, a healthy apology includes at least four qualities: sincerity, an acknowledgment of the harm done and acceptance of full responsibility without shifting blame, an expression of remorse with a desire for forgiveness, and a willingness to make restitution.

Senators Tom Harkin and Sam Brownback sponsored the Senate resolution. The apology they crafted on our behalf, achieves three of the four qualities of a healthy apology. The missing component is the one that unleashes the power of forgiveness. The missing link is not the willingness to make restitution, as so many have noted. Rather, the gap in the resolution comes from the fact that Congress never actually asks for forgiveness. The irony of that omission is obvious. Congress ask for forgiveness?

The resolution rightly acknowledges the harm done and accepts responsibility of the federal government, speaking for the people.

Whereas Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage;... Whereas the system of slavery and the visceral racism against people of African descent upon which it depended became enmeshed in the social fabric of the United States; …

The apology accepts responsibility in a sincere way: ...it is important for the people of the United States, who legally recognized slavery through the Constitution and the laws of the United States, to make a formal apology for slavery and for its successor, Jim Crow...

Restitution has already been made. An atonement for slavery has been paid in the bodies of more than 600,000 dead in the fields of the Civil War. Men laying down their lives, literally, on behalf of those laboring under oppression and brutality. Some died that others might be free. An atonement for the Jim Crow era has been ongoing in the reforms of laws and the investment of billions of dollars in federal funds over the past four decades to reduce poverty, to provide educational and economic opportunity for those who have historically been excluded, and to open doors of access to ensure equality.

However, the Congress apologizes but never explicitly asks for forgiveness. To ask for forgiveness provides the one receiving the apology to offer reconciliation. A transfer of power takes place – from the offender to the wounded. It takes two to reconcile. An apology only begins the conversation. True acceptance of the apology brings reconciliation. One party can apologize, but the other party must receive and agree to release the pain and the hurt in order for all to be healthy.

The absence of a specific request for forgiveness leaves the wound open. Those who have been wronged cannot offer forgiveness to the offender unless the offender asks for it. In other words, Congress has moved the ball forward but taken the offense off the field before crossing the goal line. The goal should be reconciliation. Anything else falls short.

I applaud the Senate for taking another step toward eradicating the legacy of slavery and segregation. However, I look forward to the day when the discussion will no longer be a dialogue articulating the damages done and wounds incurred but rather a deep act of forgiveness that brings true reconciliation. This most recent apology fails to do just that.