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Slavery: Trying to atone, but why now?

In a nation with an unquenchable need to analyze its racial past, there is now a fresh flow of contrition from public officials for the many wrongs of U.S. history.  Why are public officials making amends now?
Descendants of Dred Scott and others gather at his grave site Tuesday in St. Louis, Mo., to mark the 150th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to deny Scott, a slave, his freedom.
Descendants of Dred Scott and others gather at his grave site Tuesday in St. Louis, Mo., to mark the 150th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision to deny Scott, a slave, his freedom.Jeff Roberson / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

America is once again struggling to atone for slavery and its aftermath.

In a nation with an unquenchable need to analyze its racial past, there is now a fresh flow of contrition from public officials for the many wrongs of U.S. history.

Inspired by a resolution apologizing for slavery that Virginia legislators passed last month, black lawmakers in Georgia said Thursday they plan to introduce a similar measure there. Maryland and Missouri also are discussing an apology. And so far, a white Memphis congressman has gathered 36 co-sponsors for a bill that, if passed, would bring an apology to the federal level.

The FBI announced last week it is actively reinvestigating about a dozen cases of blacks slain in the 1950s and '60s as possible civil rights violations. As many as 100 more cases are being considered for similar treatment.

"Much time has passed on these crimes," Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez told a news conference in Washington. "The wounds they left are deep, and many of them still have not healed."

It's been decades since these crimes were committed. And nearly 142 years since the Civil War ended and Congress ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Why are public officials trying to make amends now?

Grappling to understand
Because revelations about the past are pushing some people to think about race in America in new ways. Plus, echoes of racial bias remain all too obvious, and politicians may be grasping for new ways to show concern.

Generations after the civil rights movement began, blacks generally remain poorer, less educated and more likely to be in prison than whites.

Many historians, political scientists and public policy experts argue that this is rooted in blacks' unhealed wounds from slavery, combined with widespread tactics during the century or so that followed to keep blacks from equal education, jobs and housing.

"This country is built on their (blacks') backs, so when you talk about some of the ills that we face now in society, I'm sure that some of it's got to trace back to that," said Maryland Sen. Nathaniel Exum, sponsor of his state's resolution, which will likely be voted on this month.

Sometimes a here-and-now incident casts a long shadow.

Since white comedian Michael Richards repeatedly used the n-word and referred to lynching in a rant last November, lawmakers in several cities have passed symbolic moratoriums on the racial slur once used by slave owners. New York City joined the group last week.

Sometimes an anniversary revives the past. On Tuesday, a ceremony in St. Louis marked the 150th anniversary of the Dred Scott case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a slave's attempt to sue for his freedom.

Technology brings history alive
Modern research techniques also mean that history can come alive in a way that once was not possible.

Take the issue of personal ancestry, a particularly painful one for those blacks whose family ties to Africa were erased during slavery. Sophisticated research efforts, including DNA testing that can trace Americans' African roots, are reviving bonds to the continent — and, in some ways, keeping fresh the painful reminders of slavery.

When the Rev. Al Sharpton, a major civil rights activist, learned that his ancestors once were owned by the forebears of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a staunch defender of racial segregation, he was clearly moved. He visited the graves of his slave ancestors in South Carolina on Monday, urging all blacks to explore their personal history despite "the ugly things it might reveal."

Now he's seeking DNA tests to see if he and Thurmond were blood relatives.

"When someone is handing you the actual papers of your blood relatives — indentured servants' papers and the tax rolls of where they were property — then it's no longer some objective, nebulous knowledge," Sharpton said.

Fresh revelations
Another factor driving the recent public displays of contrition is that, with much of the nation's racial history still being written, fresh revelations come every year.

A new book about widespread post-Civil War attacks on blacks, "Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America," by journalist Elliot Jaspin, is due out this month.

Several newspapers looked into their own coverage of civil rights and then apologized last year for making racism worse. Editors at Florida's Tallahassee Democrat wrote: "It is inconceivable that a newspaper, an institution that exists freely only because of the Bill of Rights, could be so wrong on civil rights. But we were."

The research increasingly shows that slavery, Jim Crow and racism were not, as once thought, confined to the South.

Not just the South
They were part of all of America from day one and were kept in place by some of the nation's most powerful — government officials, big businesses, universities. Several U.S. presidents owned slaves. Slave labor helped build the U.S. Capitol and many other structures around the country.

That includes University Hall, the oldest building at Brown University in Rhode Island, according to a yearlong probe into the school's slavery links. The report found that the Brown family itself owned ships that transported stolen Africans, and profits from slavery helped found the university.

The main reason for such official complicity: The profits — economic and political — of 250-plus years of blacks' free labor and another century of black suppression were enormous. Most found it irresistible.

Today, some question whether public officials' apology resolutions mean much.

"What would it mean to vote against a resolution like this? Would it mean you were racially insensitive?" asked David Pilgrim, a sociologist at Ferris State University in Michigan. "Conversely, I'm not sure what it would mean that you were voting for it."

Next question: How to fix the damage?
Some civil rights advocates want an official, federal "I'm sorry" for slavery from the president. It has never come, perhaps because this would raise the logical — and thorny — next question: How to repair the damage?

Opponents say that attempts to compensate for racial crimes through reparations would deepen racial divisions.

Pilgrim, who is also curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, hopes the current wave of atonement does the opposite.

"If you look at American history, it wasn't that long ago that you couldn't get the most powerful people in the country talking about slavery," he said. "What is healthy is not the (apology) resolutions but the process of coming to the resolutions. All the discussions and debates get people talking honestly about race."