Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.) Photo by John Shinkle.
Sen. Sam Brownback and Rep. Stephen I. Cohen are proposing two of the most sweeping apologies in American history.
Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat, has introduced a resolution apologizing for all of the wrongs suffered by blacks at the hands of the U.S. government, especially slavery and segregation. And Brownback, a Kansas Republican, is pushing a measure offering "an apology to all native peoples" for hundreds of years of government hostility and oppression.
Neither resolution is binding. And neither would require the United States to offer reparations to those wronged, although they would be powerful statements if adopted by either the House or the Senate. Brownback, who is seeking the GOP presidential nomination, has offered his American Indian resolution in the last two Congresses, and it was approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2005. But it has never been adopted by the full Senate. His co-sponsors this time are Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.).
Brownback's resolution opens with declarations that American Indians "have for millennia honored, protected and stewarded this land we cherish" and that, with the coming of European settlers and the creation of the United States in the late 1700s, "Indian tribes provided great assistance to the fledgling republic as it strengthened and grew."
But the government "violated many of the treaties ratified by Congress and other diplomatic agreements with Indian tribes" and took numerous official actions that caused immense harm to American Indians, including "extermination, termination, forced removal and relocation, the outlawing of traditional religions and the destruction of sacred places," the resolution says. And these policies contribute to the social and economic problems facing American Indians today.
Brownback wants a formal apology to American Indians from the president and Congress.
His resolution states that Congress "apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all native peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment and neglect inflicted on native peoples by citizens of the United States." It also "urges the president to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land by providing a proper foundation for reconciliation between the United States and Indian tribes."
In a speech on the House floor last week, Cohen, a freshman representing a predominantly black district in Memphis, spoke out passionately for his resolution apologizing for the wrongs inflicted on blacks.
"For 246 years, our Constitution and our laws allowed a system that made people slaves, that divided people from their families and treated them as property," Cohen said. "And for 100 years thereafter, a system of laws in many states throughout the country had Jim Crow laws that deprived people of the opportunity for equal access to education, health care, public facilities and other types of programs. These ended by law in the [1960s], somewhat through the efforts of Thurgood Marshall and other attorneys in Brown v. Board of Education, but the effects are lingering.
"This country needs to apologize for a brutal, inhumane system of slavery and Jim Crow laws," Cohen went on. "President Bush has made remarks similar to this in Senegal; President Clinton also in the [commonwealth] of Virginia most recently."
Cohen's resolution is graphic. "Slavery in America resembled no other form of involuntary servitude known in history, as Africans were captured and sold at auction like inanimate objects or animals," it says.
It also states that "the system of de jure racial segregation known as 'Jim Crow,' which arose in certain parts of the nation following the Civil War to create separate and unequal societies for whites and African-Americans" still has some "vestiges" today.
Cohen wants the House to acknowledge "the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow" and officially apologize to "African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States" and offer a "commitment to rectify the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow and to stop the occurrence of human rights violations in the future."
Cohen has 36 co-sponsors for his resolution, including Reps. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) and Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio), as well as House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and several other members of the Congressional Black Caucus.Cohen tried to join the Black Caucus after the November election but was turned down because he's white.
His resolution has been referred to Conyers' committee for consideration.
More Steve Cohen on W.E. A.L.L. B.E.: