WASHINGTON — The House on Tuesday issued an unprecedented apology to black Americans for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow segregation laws.
"Today represents a milestone in our nation's efforts to remedy the ills of our past," said Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The nonbinding resolution, passed by voice vote, was the work of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district.
Congress has issued apologies before — 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 antilynching laws.
Five states, including Florida in March, 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 and suffering caused by slavery.
The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying "the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow."
It says 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 "apologizes 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."
"Slavery and Jim Crow are stains upon what is the greatest nation on the face of the Earth," Cohen said. 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."
A total of 120 lawmakers, including Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, co-sponsored the resolution, Cohen said.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is considering introducing a companion measure in the Senate, he said.
Cohen faces a formidable black challenger in a primary face-off next week. He became the first white to represent the 60 percent black district in Memphis in more than three decades when he captured a 2006 primary where a dozen black candidates split the vote. He has sought to reach out to his black constituents, and early in his term showed interest in joining the Congressional Black Caucus until learning that was against caucus rules.
More than a dozen of the 42 Congressional Black Caucus members in the House were original co-sponsors of the measure. The caucus has not endorsed either Cohen or his chief rival, lawyer Nikki Tinker, in the Memphis primary, although Cohen is backed by several senior members.
In recent years, black activists seeking reparations for slavery have gotten private companies, such as banks, insurers and railroads, to apologize for playing a role in bankrolling, insuring, capturing and transporting slaves.
In 2005, Wachovia Corp. revealed that one bank it acquired had put thousands of slaves to work on a railroad.
That same year, JPMorgan Chase apologized for the role that a subsidiary had played in using 10,000 slaves as collateral and accepting more than 1,000 slaves as payments when owners defaulted on loans.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.