U.S. Senate approves resolution apologizing for slavery

June 18, 2009

The U.S. Senate approved a resolution on Thursday apologizing for slavery and segregation of African-Americans, almost five months after Barack Obama was sworn in as the first black U.S. president.

While the Senate resolution acknowledged that an apology for centuries of wrongdoing could not erase the past, it said a “confession of the wrongs committed and a formal apology to African-Americans will help bind the wounds of the nation that are rooted in slavery, and can speed racial healing and reconciliation, and help the people of the United States understand the past and honor the history of all people of the United States.”

In an unusual step, the three-page resolution was read in its entirety in the chamber, where the first black senator, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, stepped onto the Senate floor about 139 years ago.

However, the resolution is not without controversy.  Some are upset by the last lines of the resolution that include a disclaimer: “Nothing in this resolution — A) authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or B) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States.”


Democratic Senator Roland Burris, the lone African-American in the Senate, argued that the disclaimer should not prohibit future congressional action on the issue of reparations.  Despite the concern, the resolution passed the Senate by voice vote.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin noted that the Senate adopted resolutions apologizing to Native Americans, for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and for not enacting anti-lynching legislation — but never slavery.

“A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice,” Harkin said on the Senate floor.

For more Reuters political news, click here.

- Photo credit: Reuters/Finbarr O’Reilly (a man is silhouetted in the “Door of No Return” at Goree Island in Senegal where African slaves were shipped out.)


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Why Is My government apologizing for slavery? My ancestors did not own slaves(my family comes from Italy) and my State (NJ)which i have lived in all my life (47 years) never had Legal slavery. So why is MY government Apologizing for something I had no part of? I hate this. My Government is suppose to be speaking for me and it does not even know me.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

OK, now can they deal with some issues from the 21st century?

Give me a break! This happened over 145 years ago and over 600,000 lives were lost in the Civil War that was fought over this. Do we need to keep bringing up old issues?

Do the decedents that now live in this great nation feel that they are worse off then if they had been left where ancestors started? They need to listen to Bill Cosby, stop playing victims and take charge of their lives.

Posted by Bob S | Report as abusive

This was a bad idea when the house brought it up and it’s still a bad idea. It is meaningless to apologize for history. Get over it and on with your lives.

Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

I have a number of ancestors that fought for the North buried in Civil War cemetaries. I hope if reparations are started we will be compensated for our loss.

Posted by Pete | Report as abusive

Please, no apology or reparations in my name.My ancestors owned no slaves, and I was 12yrs old in 1965 when Jim Crow died. I would however support an apology and reparations for all the terrible things done to the American Indians.Im sorry that my own home state of Virginia has already issued an apology for slavery,but doesnt work to even recognize the various Indian tribes. How about also getting the British, Spanish, and the Dutch to apologize for slavery..Fat Chance.

Posted by Harry Taylor Jr. | Report as abusive

Absolutely a waste of my taxpayer dollars. When is the African American Community going to get on with theur lives and quit pointing the finger elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Black people say they haven’t been seen on TV enough.

So Americas Most Wanted, decided to show an extra edition each week, doubling their exposure.

I’m sick of their racist attitudes.. Get a job, get off welfare, become President…

Posted by mark | Report as abusive

When will these senatorial idiots apologize to ALL citizens of the United States for the terrible job they’ve done in recent history while doing the “peoples” business.
It’s about time they get they’re collective senatorial head out of they’re collective senatorial butt……….
While this is a nice gesture , it does nothing for the wrong that was perpetrated so long ago and is a waste of the peoples time and the peoples money.

Posted by mdh | Report as abusive

It’s sad to see that the myth lives on that the U.S. civil war was a grand crusade to end slavery.

In fact, those Union soldiers were not fighting to end slavery, but to preserve the Union. The North was badly divided over whether to end slavery after the war, and the decision wasn’t even made until 1865.

It’s also sad to see Americans who are unaware of how their white immigrant ancestors benefited from slavery, even long after the civil war, and from Jim Crow laws.

True reparations are sincere apologies from a sincere heart. There is no amount of $’s that can take its place. If a people want $’s for reparation then their heart is deceiving only for monetary gain. That is then extortion. A Senate can not collectively become the Spirit of God for the conviction of sins (as confirmed in the comments). There is only one God. Monetary reparations does not and will not heal past or present wounds. People who deceive with it will reap the seeds of injustice.

Posted by Dee | Report as abusive

Does anyone really believe that this resolution will “speed racial healing and reconciliation”? Why would it. If I were black I would be grateful I live in America and not tribal Africa. Not that slavery was ok – it wasn’t – it still isn’t and it does still exist in the world. But come on…get on with your lives. If BO became President then the time for crying about your ancestors lives is over!

Posted by MDC | Report as abusive

Not one red cent for reparations. Millions, however, for repatriation.

Posted by Frank Freeman | Report as abusive

James, the sacrifice of over 300,000 Northern soldiers, the vast majority of them White, made abolition possible. How they viewed the war does not change that.

A “thank you” from blacks to the descendants and relatives of those Northerners who gave their lives in that conflict would go a long way toward promoting racial healing.

Posted by Mike in NYC | Report as abusive

Well my family either came over on the boat after the Civil War and the 13th amendment were enacted or always lived north of the Ohio River, but on the other hand there are still people in this country who think the South losing the Civil War was a bad thing (Trent Lott comes to mind) and are trying to push a revisionist version of slavery as not really such a bad thing. So I have no problem with this resolution. I do have a problem with people who still think the South should rise again. If slavery were such a benign institution there should be loads of pre-emancipation photos of all the white people who were slaves in the same sense the blacks were slaves. And no, indentured servants and prostitutes don’t count. So show me those photos of all the white people with scars on their backs from multiple whippings.

Posted by borisjimski | Report as abusive

“Meanwhile, the Black people say they haven’t been seen on TV enough.
So Americas Most Wanted, decided to show an extra edition each week, doubling their exposure.
I’m sick of their racist attitudes.. Get a job, get off welfare, become President…”

Speaking of racist attitudes . . .

But that said, this resolution should be the end of it, and the Cos is right in his way, you can’t play victim forever.

Posted by borisjimski | Report as abusive

It’s also sad to see Americans who are unaware of how their white immigrant ancestors benefited from slavery, even long after the civil war, and from Jim Crow laws.

- Posted by James

Yes James we all know there were many reasons for the Civil War and that slavery was low on the list, spare us the history lesson. However it is the part of your post that I included above that I find baffling. Are you suggesting that it is OK for one group of people to benefit from the enslavement and oppression of a another group? That whites should look back at history and say “Thank God those black people were slaves, it really helped my ancestors get ahead in life.”? Is that what you’re saying? Because if it is then it’s an incredibly racist thing to say. Please tell me that’s not what you mean.

Posted by Eric H | Report as abusive

I am very thankful for the resolution. It means a great deal to me. I accept the resoultion on behalf of my ancestors that endured slavery and Jim Crow. In spite of the wrongs committed against them they thought me to forgive and love my fellow man. I feel very sorry for those who speak so ill of this resolution. It shows they have no understanding of what took place in this county. The Bible tells me to do unto others as I would have them do to me. I would never put you under slavery and Jim Crow because I care about my fellow man and I care about you. I pray you develop an understanding heart and love for your fellow man too.

Posted by Louis | Report as abusive

………and another thing. I think a lot of people have lost sight of what slavery was. The picture most people have is of black slaves working in fields and being whipped if they misbehaved. I think people forget that the slave trade from Africa went on for four hundred years. That whole villages were kidnapped, marched through the jungle to the coast, held in pens and then sold. Anyone who resisted was killed, women raped, families torn apart and that’s just in Africa. Then imagine being chained to the floor of a ships cargo hold for two months with very little food and water laying in your own waste and vomit until you were sold again and beaten until you were broken. Not only were blacks sold into slavery for life but any children they had were plantation property.
This wasn’t that Uncle Remus/Song of the South bull@#$% that people think it was, it was a brutal method of building an economy on backs of forced labor. The US was the last country to outlaw slavery. Any one still think we don’t owe some sort of apology?

Posted by Eric H | Report as abusive

Reparations have already been paid – by the blood of Union soldiers!! 110,070 battle dead and 250,152 other war related deaths (Disease, battle-related injuries). Are the blacks going to pay reparations for their sacrifices to win their freedom?

Posted by Originalist | Report as abusive

Proud Americans, regardless of race,gender,color and religion are truly ready to move on. We all saw this in the election of the country’s first Black President.

We have too much work to do as a Nation in trying to bring about peace in the world, surviving changes in the climate/natural resources and world wide hunger.

We have seen this country come together at a grass root level during Katrina, no one cared who was standing there with an outreached hand–they simply looked up and grab it.

As the saying goes, “this is America” and we are a unique and funny kind of peoples. First steps are lasting steps. This resolution is just one of many/already lasting steps.

Personally, I hope they don’t go for reparations. The first black person to blow their money on something stupid will be plastered all over the six o’clock news. White folk will be looking for something like that.

Posted by Tommy | Report as abusive

Eric, I appreciate that you know that slavery was not a primary cause of the Civil War. This isn’t something, however, that most Americans understand. Just read the comment from Mike in NYC: he insists that black Americans should be grateful that their ancestors were ever freed from slavery, and thank the descendants of those who died for other reasons, and in the process happened to bring about abolition.

You ask me, “Are you suggesting that it is OK for one group of people to benefit from the enslavement and oppression of a another group? That whites should look back at history and say ‘Thank God those black people were slaves, it really helped my ancestors get ahead in life.’?”

Of course that’s not what I’m saying. I said that people should be aware of the benefits their families have received, even after the fact, from slavery and discrimination.

However, I’m puzzled by your comment. Are you saying that you’re in favor of reparations for slavery? What else do you mean by saying that it would be racist to believe that it’s okay for white people today to benefit from slavery and oppression?

Anyone who thinks Barack Obama’s presidency solved the problem of racism should read the comments on this post. I don’t see how anyone can minimize the impact of slavery/Jim Crow and say I should be grateful I’m not a slave, or in Africa somewhere and claim not to be a racist. We don’t look at Jewish Americans or Japanese Americans or Native Americans and say those things. We don’t turn our noses up and say we should never have apologized to them, or that the Holocaust, or Interment Camps, or Hostile Takeover of them and their land made their lives better because they live in the US now and that they should be grateful. Can you imagine someone saying “You should be grateful Columbus came and raped robbed and pillaged you guys. Look how much better everything is now. Get over it.” As if having your village burned down, anyone who resisted killed, women raped, and family kidnapped, being chained up on ships in feces next to dead bodies, children ripped from your arms to be sold to someone else, being sold as PROPERTY, being deemed 3/5ths of a person, divided by skin color and hair texture and taught to hate yourself over the course of 400 years and then, once slavery is “over,” being treated as a second class citizen, with the law rarely on your side, even if a lynch mob tarred, feathered, and burned you or your family members, or your friends alive. We don’t deny what happened during the civil rights movement, but I don’t think people have really made the connection between that and chattle slavery. Today’s government shouldn’t be dealing with this sort of thing in 2009. It should have done it a century and a half ago, while it was still Yesterday’s government.

The only thing I learned about myself in school was that I was a slave. Slavery ended, and then I was a second class citizen. I was either oppressed, or fighting oppression. Everything about my present culture is called “ghetto” or “low class.” I knew nothing about any kingdoms by black people, any form of civilization before slavery, I have no idea where I come from before life on the plantation. Africa is not a country. And yet it’s the only thing I can say about my ancestry. “Africa, somewhere.” And people say that that should be enough, while they trace their ancestors back to some specific village or some ancient custom, or some thing that the history books are willing to acknowledge because THEY aren’t BLACK like me, and telling these people that their people were once something more than chattle slaves won’t upset the status quo. Our history was destroyed. Our languages lost. Reparations will NEVER be enough. But this…this is a start. And frankly, it’s a long time coming.

Posted by Kbax | Report as abusive