Congressional Apologies for Slavery, Jim Crow and Lynching

For many years, the NAACP and other civil rights groups lobbied the U.S. Congress and a series of presidents to make lynching a Federal crime. Southern Democrats in the U.S. Senate for decades had the power to block or filibuster all legislative remedies that civil rights organizations had sought. Meanwhile, thousands of African Americans across the South, as well as other sections of the country, were lynched, burned alive, or executed, often with crowds of whites participating in, or witnessing these gory events. While Americans attempted to believe that racial violence ended with the Civil Rights legislation, hate crimes, racially motivated police brutality and Klan violence proliferated throughout the country in the late 1980’s and 1990s.

In June 2005, the U.S. Senate finally voted to issue a formal “apology for lynching.” This represented the first time in U.S. history that Congress had acknowledged, in a formal resolution, the historic crimes committed against people of African descent in the United States. However, when the resolution came to the floor of the Senate for a final voice vote, only 85 U.S. Senators had co-signed as sponsors. Fifteen senators, all Republicans, had not. After the actual vote, seven Republican senators agreed to sign a large copy of the Senate’s “anti-lynching resolution,” for the purposes of public display. Eight Republicans steadfastly refused to endorse an apology for lynching: Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), Thad Cochran (R-Mississippi), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee), Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming), Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire), John Sununu (R-New Hampshire), and Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming).

In another unprecedented moment, the United States House apologized for both slavery and Jim Crow on July 29, 2008. In doing so, they acknowledged that slavery and Jim Crow continued to impact the African American community, long after the systems of oppression were formally abolished. Yet, unlike the formal apology that had been offered to the families of Japanese men and women interned during World War Two, the senate’s resolution did nothing to compensate the descendants of slaves, or the families of lynching victims.

Both political and intellectual leaders throughout the black community began to call the United States to fulfill the promise of ‘40 acres and a mule,’ as ex-slaves had never been given the opportunity to obtain economic autonomy and livelihood after the Civil War. Jim Crow legislation, coupled with racist terrorizing of black communities, severely disrupted economic, political and social stability. Thus, they asked the government to declare that slavery had been a “crime against humanity,” and to affirm the necessity for reparations or compensation to people of African descent for centuries of discrimination, oppression and exploitation—positions that the United States rejected. Reparations have been proposed in many different forms—the provision of educational scholarships, small business loans, and land—they are all focused on minimizing the inequities, where the injustices and loss cannot ever be repaid. Activists continue to press the United States government on these things.

Related Resources

Senate Resolution Apologizing for Failure to Enact Anti-Lynching Legislation.
U.S. Congress. Senate. A resolution apologizing to the victims of lynching and the descendants of those victims for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation. S. Res. 39. 109th Cong., 1st sess. (June 13, 2005). Available online at Last accessed December 5, 2008.
Congressman Charles Rangel Calls for Reparations.
Congressman Charles Rangel (June 14, 2005). Apologies for Lynching Are Welcome, But Reparations Are in Order. Press Release. Available online at Last accessed December 5, 2008.