The Case for the Senate's Apology

Few people live to tell what it's like to be lynched. James Cameron did.

At 91, he recalls dangling from a maple tree in Marion, Ind., in 1930. His offense: being a black man. He still remembers the rope cutting into his neck, his tongue bulging out of his mouth and his legs kicking frantically in the air.

Cameron saw death up close. Yet he escaped death barely when someone with a conscience in the lynch mob pleaded for his life. Cameron's executioners spared him.

The history of lynching black people in the United States didn't begin or end with Cameron. From 1882 to 1968, lynch mobs killed 3,446 black men, according to the Charles Chestnutt Digital Archive. Others went undocumented. At the turn of the last century, more than 100 lynchings occurred each year, primarily in the South. The problem was extremely serious.

Seven presidents lobbied Congress for anti-lynching legislation. The House of Representatives gave the White House what it wanted, three times passing legislation to make lynching a federal offense. However, the Senate blocked the anti-lynching bills each time.

Influential Southern senators, such as Richard Russell Jr., filibustered to block votes. Congressional records show that some senators, like Russell, believed anti-lynching laws would undermine states’ rights. Other senators argued that lynching helped reinforce the base Jim Crow laws of racial segregation. In a word, the Senate struck down legislation that would save lives.

Last month, the Senate approved a resolution apologizing for its failure to ratify federal anti-lynching measures. The apology says, “Protection against lynching was the minimum and most basic of federal responsibilities, and the Senate considered but failed to enact anti-lynching legislation despite repeated requests by civil rights groups, presidents, and the House of Representatives.”

Most Senators felt they did the right thing by apologizing. However, some senators refused to co-sponsor the measure. They questioned the wisdom of an official apology. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., commented, “I don't think I'll get in the business of apologizing for acts that previous Senates took.”

His colleague, Sen. Trent Lott, also saw no need to co-sponsor an apology. “Where do we end all of this? Are we going to apologize for not doing the right thing on Social Security?” remarked Lott.

From a moral viewpoint, can these objections hold up to scrutiny? Let's consider each one.

The content of Cochran's objection suggests that today's Senate, as a governmental institution, has no moral responsibility for what it did in the past. This contradicts the ethical principle of accountability. Accountability for good or bad actions of individuals or institutions applies not only to the present, but also to the past. Justice requires individuals and institutions to accept moral responsibility for all their actions as long as they exist. To do otherwise would constitute an injustice.

In fact, senators in the past have co-sponsored official apologies for wrongdoing, in which many had no personal responsibility. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II stands out as a classic example. An official apology offered by the Senate isn't about senators accepting personal culpability for wrongdoing. It's about making institutions morally responsible for their actions.

Sen. Lott's objection deals with the issue of closure. His question, “Where do we end all of this?” seems to be another way of saying, “that was a long time ago. Let's get over it and move on.”

However, experience shows that old wounds caused by social injustice do not go away simply by ignoring them or pretending they never happened. Time alone doesn't heal all wounds. In the mind of the Church, only a serious commitment to the process of reconciliation will bring healing and definitive closure to wrongdoings of the past. How does this process of reconciliation work?

It begins with mutual forgiveness. Mutual forgiveness lays the foundation for reconciliation. In his 1997 World Day of Peace message, Pope John Paul II said, “The weight of the past, which cannot be forgotten, can be accepted only when mutual forgiveness is offered and received; this is a long and difficult process, but one that is not impossible.”

Mutual forgiveness means renouncing hate and violence by practicing mutual respect and eventually charity. However, mutual forgiveness, from a moral standpoint, does not eliminate the next step of reconciliation, which is justice.

In his 1981 encyclical on Divine Mercy (Dives In Misericordia), Pope John Paul II explains the correct relationship between mutual forgiveness and justice: “Properly understood, justice constitutes, so to speak, the goal of forgiveness,” he says. “In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence towards evil, towards scandals, towards injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.”

Consequently, it isn't enough just to say “Sorry” for past faults. Reconciliation necessarily involves reparation for wrongdoing.

Reconciliation brings maturity when it leads to the truth. Truth demands complete disclosure of social injustices so that adequate restitution may occur. Complete and truthful disclosure of social injustices also does justice to historical accuracy. Sweeping injustices under the carpet will only deform historical truth and prolong healing from painful experiences.

The Senate's official apology last month for not doing what it could to stop lynching reminds us all of something very important: It's never too late to say sorry.

Legionary Father Andrew McNair is a theology professor at Mater Ecclesiae College in Greenville, R.I.