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US: US Senate votes formal apology for slavery

By Olivier Knox
19 Jun 2009 3:06 AM

WASHINGTON, June 18 AFP - The US Senate approved a fiercely worded resolution on Thursday formally apologizing for the "fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery" of African-Americans.

The unanimous voice vote came five months after Barack Obama became the first black US president, and ahead of the June 19 "Juneteenth" celebration of the emancipation of African-Americans at the end of the US Civil War in 1865.

The non-binding resolution now heads to the House of Representatives, where a similar resolution passed by voice vote in July 2008, only to wither in the upper chamber.

House approval, which could come as early as next week, would make it the first time the entire US Congress has formally apologized on behalf of the American people for one of the grimmest wrongs in US history.

The bill, which does not require Obama's signature, states that the US Congress "acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws" that enshrined racial segregation at the state and local level in the United States well into the 1960s.

The Congress "apologises 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 laws."

And it "expresses its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society."

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas led the debate as both major US parties banished their deep differences on subjects like the economy to come together on the measure.

"Let us make no mistake: This resolution will not fix lingering injustices. while we are proud of this resolution and believe it is long overdue, the real work lies ahead," said Harkin.

In a step that has angered some African-American lawmakers, the measure takes pains not to fuel the push for the US government to pay reparations to the descendants of African slaves.

"Nothing in this resolution (a) authorises or supports any claim against the United States; or (b) serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States," it says.

That has drawn "serious concerns" within the Congressional Black Caucus, though the group has yet to decide on a formal position towards the legislation, a source close to the group said on Thursday.

It was unclear whether opposition from those lawmakers could force a change to the language or otherwise hinder the measure.

And Harkin said a "fitting ceremony" to mark final passage would occur in early July. Supporters hoped Obama would attend the event.

The United States has never offered a formal apology for the chattel slavery of Africans, though former president Bill Clinton expressed regret for the practice during a March 1998 trip to Africa.

His successor, George W Bush, called slavery "one of the greatest crimes of history" during a July 2003 visit to Goree Island, Senegal, a former slave-trade port.

Some US states have officially adopted resolutions expressing regret or remorse for slavery.

The debate came as the United States marked the 80th anniversary of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, who formally declared blacks in secessionist states free during the civil war in 1863.

And 2009 is also the hundredth year since the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) civil rights group.

The US Congress has apologised for other wrongs over the years: In 1988, it apologised for the World War II-era internment of people of Japanese descent, and 20 years later for the treatment of Native American peoples as the United States grew.