The U.S. Senate apologized Thursday for slavery and for the segregationist Jim Crow laws, 144 years after the Civil War and 45 years after passing the Civil Rights Act.
The action came in a nonbinding resolution adopted unanimously by voice vote.
The Senate chamber was nearly empty as Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin rose to call for a measure that he said was long overdue for the descendants of 4 million blacks who were enslaved in the U.S.
"A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice," Harkin said. "So, it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws."
The resolution states the congressional apology is made to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States for "the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors." That is followed, however, by a disclaimer that says nothing in the resolution authorizes any claim against the United States.
Kansas Republican Sam Brownback, who co-sponsored the measure, says that disclaimer was necessary to win the support of senators who feared the apology could be used by African-Americans seeking reparations.
"It was a difficult negotiation," he says. "We had to get the reparation issue right."
Last year, the House passed a similar resolution, but without the reparations disclaimer.
New York Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, says he isn't sure he supports the Senate's reparations disclaimer.
"If it ... can be construed to mean that ... it rules out [reparations], then that's a problem," Meeks says.
Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, who sponsored last year's House resolution, says he hopes the House passes the Senate's apology soon, but he wants it done by voice vote.
"This should be a congenial, kumbaya moment," he says. "A roll call could expose some fissures in what should be a cohesive spirit of apology and rectitude and more perfect union."