WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a resolution Thursday calling on the U.S. to apologize officially for the enslavement and segregation of millions of African-Americans and to acknowledge "the fundamental injustice, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws."
The resolution, sponsored with little fanfare by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, passed on a voice vote. It now moves to the House of Representatives, where it may meet an unlikely foe: Members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Several CBC members expressed concerns Thursday about a disclaimer that states that "nothing in this resolution authorizes or supports any claim against the United States; or serves as a settlement of any claim against the United States."
The CBC members think that the disclaimer is an attempt to stave off reparations claims from the descendants of slaves.
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said her organization is studying the language of Harkin's resolution.
Other CBC members said they've read it and don't like it.
"Putting in a disclaimer takes away from the meaning of an apology," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. "A number of us are prepared to vote against it in its present form. There are several members of the Progressive Caucus who feel the same way."
Thompson and other Black Caucus members noted that a 1988 apology that the government issued to the Japanese-Americans held in U.S. camps during World War II had no disclaimer and didn't prevent them from receiving compensation.
"The language is unacceptable," said Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., "I'm a reparations man — how else do you repair the damage?"
Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., the Senate's lone African-American, went to the floor after the Harkin resolution passed and said "I want to go on record making sure that that disclaimer in no way would eliminate future actions that may be brought before this body that may deal with reparations."
Such concerns by the Black Caucus could slow a resolution that many lawmakers and civil rights groups considered such a slam-dunk that plans are already underway for an elaborate signing and apology ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda early next month.
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who's shepherding the Harkin resolution in the House, sponsored a slavery apology bill that excluded a disclaimer and passed in that chamber last year. He described the scheduled Rotunda event as "an understanding, a beginning of a dialogue."
Instead of making preparations for the event, Cohen found himself Thursday trying to convince Black Caucus members that the disclaimer is simply ultra-careful legalese that senators insisted upon and doesn't impact the drive for reparations.
"It doesn't set reparations back," Cohen said, his voice trailing. "But to be against an apology . . . "
However, some African-Americans hailed the Senate vote as a monumental achievement.
Charles Ogletree, a Harvard University law professor who mentored President Barack Obama, placed it on par with the federal government's apology to Japanese-Americans and said it comes at a time of significant milestones for African-Americans.
"This year we're celebrating the 80th birthday of Martin Luther King, the 200th birthday of Lincoln and the 100th anniversary of the NAACP," Ogletree said.
Harkin's resolution was blunt and direct. It states that Africans and their descendants were forced into slavery in the U.S. and the original 13 colonies from 1619 through 1865 and "were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage."
To that end, the resolution "apologizes 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."
"A wrong of segregation was done by the federal government of the United States of America, and we acknowledge that," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a co-sponsor of the resolution. "We say it was wrong, and we ask forgiveness for that."
The U.S. and other countries have long wrestled with apologizing for their roles in slavery or the African slave trade. Former President Bill Clinton considered apologizing, but stopped short of it during a trip to Uganda in 1998.
"European-Americans received the fruits of the slave trade," Clinton said then. "And we were wrong."
In 1997, an apology measure by then-Rep. Tony Hall, D-Ohio, failed to gain support in a Republican-controlled House. Cohen's resolution passed the House by voice vote last year but lingered in the Senate.
Harkin's resolution notes that states including Virginia, Alabama, Florida, Maryland and North Carolina have adopted resolutions "officially expressing appropriate remorse for slavery."
In addition, cities including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Richmond, Va., have passed ordinances over the years that require businesses seeking government contracts to provide historic records to determine whether they were involved in or earned profits from slavery before they're awarded contracts.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair flirted with apologizing for Great Britain's role in slavery in late 2006, but came up short, like Clinton. The Church of England earlier that year voted to formally apologize to the descendants of victims of the slave trade.