Wed 23 Apr, 2008
Tags: Abolition, Apologies, Bicentennial, H.R. 3432, H.R. 40, H.Res. 194, John Conyers, Legislation, Reparations, Slave trade, U.S. Congress
Since last year, there has been a series of legislative developments, at the state and national levels, related to the legacy of slavery and the slave trade. I’ve blogged about each of these efforts separately in the past, but in this entry, I want to offer a quick overview of the various legislative proposals and their current status.
The year 2008 marks the bicentennial of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade, and in February, President Bush signed into law the “Commission on the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act.” The commission is charged with promoting public and private commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade in 1808, on the model of Britain’s $40 million commemoration of their abolition of the trade a year earlier. The U.S. legislation, introduced by Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) as H.R. 3432, was passed after the Senate voted to strike the authorization of funding for the commission.
Apologies for slavery have been passed in seven states since February 2007. These apologies, passed in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, and as far north as New Jersey, generally express “profound regret” for the state’s history of slavery and for the legislature’s role in permitting and supporting slavery. Typically, the resolutions also cite the state’s subsequent history of violence and discrimination against former slaves and their descendants, while expressly stating that the apology cannot be used as the basis for lawsuits for reparations for any of this history. Apologies have been proposed by lawmakers, but not yet passed, in other states, including Georgia, Missouri, New York, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Texas, and there are movements for apologies in other states, including Delaware, Mississippi, and Rhode Island.
At the national level, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) introduced a resolution, H.Res. 194, last year calling for the House to apologize for slavery and discrimination “on behalf of the people of the United States.” In February, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) announced their intention to introduce an apology for slavery and discrimination in the Senate this spring. Unlike Cohen’s resolution, but like many state apologies, the Brownback/Harkin apology would contain language stipulating that the apology could not be used as the basis for reparations lawsuits. Cohen’s resolution currently has 120 co-sponsors, while Brownback and Harkin say their proposal already has 17 co-sponsors, including both Democratic presidential candidates.
Finally, since 1989, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich., currently chair of House Judiciary) has introduced into each Congress the “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.” This bill, H.R. 40 (for “forty acres and a mule”), would establish a commission to study the history of slavery and discrimination, as well as any lingering effects from these events. In addition to educating the public, the commission would recommend to Congress “appropriate remedies,” including the possibility of an apology or “any form of compensation” to the descendants of slaves. On December 18, 2007, in the first action on H.R. 40, the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a hearing on the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Further hearings are expected, but have not yet been announced.