I recently joined a bipartisan group in proposing that Congress apologize for slavery. The vigorous discussion since then has produced a surprising amount of light, especially for a debate about race.
Little-known facts about slavery are emerging, beliefs rooted in slavery's end are coming out, and we are inviting our nation's children to learn this part of our history in a way that gives it a new vibrancy.
America's history has changed the course of humanity. As slayer of tyrants, advocate of liberty, and defender of freedom, our nation has proven itself time and again. Our history bolsters Americans' pride and bestows upon us the courage to conquer new challenges. The more we know about that history the better - even when the lesson is not one free from blemishes.
One of these scars came during the shameful century when United States laws permitted and even encouraged the enslavement of black people. Those laws deemed one race of people the legal property of another. They ensured that many of the hands that built our young nation were not those of full participants, but of men, women, and children often beaten and abused into obeying the tyranny of their "masters."
In recent years, our people and our government have been forced to grapple with other scars. Some, such as the Tuskegee medical experiments on innocent black men, touched the lives of scores of Americans. Others, like the forced internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, changed the lives of many thousands more.
That we have apologized for these wrongs can neither bring back lives nor make up for the pain of the past. But an apology can do something no other action can do: It can foster the goodwill needed to change the future. In giving those wronged the dignity of an honest admission that our nation was mistaken, it can give us all a measure of healing. And it sets an example for our children.
All of us, whatever our race, live in the shadow of our past. We all share the bitter fruits of divisions rooted in that shameful era that still blights our communities and continues to poison our best efforts to change the future. Talk of reconciliation is a dialogue of hope, but if it does not begin with an apology, it cannot achieve all that it might.
The debate about an apology for slavery is a sobering measure of the hurdles facing those who are sincere about racial reconciliation. If we cannot agree on this simple step, how can we tackle the thornier issues ahead? No member of Congress today voted on measures to perpetuate slavery. But as an institution, Congress does bear responsibility. The laws we passed nurtured slavery; the political deals our forebears cut went so far as to calculate a slave's value as just three-fifths of a person.
An apology from Congress would send a powerful message. "I am sorry" is the first step of any person trying to right a wrong. These words are the foundation for beginning again, part of the price for restoring lost trust, and necessary to move forward constructively. Yet in the case of our nation's greatest moral failing, speaking those words is a step the US has not taken.
We have pursued countless policies toward the goal of healing. We have been enriched by the determination of African-Americans to overcome the problems rooted in their ancestors' enslavement. But neither their success nor the blood spilled in our Civil War excuses our continuing silence.
The words of an apology may not bring peace. They won't reach any of those directly affected, but they will echo to future generations. They are words that should not remain unspoken.
* Tony P. Hall (D) represents the Third District in Ohio.