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Public Statements

Apologizing To Lynching Victims And Their Descendants

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Location: Washington, DC


APOLOGIZING TO LYNCHING VICTIMS AND THEIR DESCENDANTS -- (Senate - June 13, 2005)

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Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, I start by thanking Senator Landrieu and Senator Allen for their leadership on this effort and for all those descendants of families who have been absolutely extraordinary in the way in which they relived their pain, brought it to the public view, kind of laid their hearts out on the table in a very real and emotional way--that has been a wonderful part of this process--and the way in which the book Jimmy Allen put together has helped to unleash a pain that was never lost, never forgotten by anybody, but never quite had a place to play itself out--until this public effort that is being made by the Senate.

There is no small irony, I suspect, in the fact that the Senate is here sort of making good on what the Senate failed to do. I personally am struck by even, at this significant moment, the undeniable and inescapable reality that there are not 100 Senators as cosponsors. Maybe by the end of the evening there will be, but as we stand here with this resolution passed by voice vote, there are not.

Moreover, all the people in the Senate and the press understand how we work here. It is critical that we take the step we are taking and have taken, but at the same time wouldn't it have been just that much more extraordinary and significant if we were having a recorded vote with all 100 Senators recording their votes? We are not.

So even today, as we take this gigantic step, we are also saying to America that there is a journey still to travel. I don't want to diminish one iota--and I don't mean to because I believe what is happening here today is so significant, but at the same time, it has to give all of us a kind of kick in the rear end to get us out there to do that which is necessary, which gives fuller meaning to the words that are going to be expressed here and have been expressed here--most important, to give fuller meaning to the emotions that have been laid bare for all of America to understand better by the families who have come here to share this with us.

I also join not just in thanking Mr. Cameron and Ms. Johnson, and others, but Janet Langhart, who is here with our former colleague and the former Secretary of Defense, Bill Cohen.

We certainly appreciate her commitment to this effort and the meaning of this to her and to all of the families who have come here together.

It is pretty incredible to think about it. Lynchings really replaced slavery. They came in the aftermath of slavery, around the 1880s. Between the 1880s and 1968--I have to pause when I think about that because I was already a young officer in the military. I had left college. I remember the early part of the 1960s devoted to the civil rights movement, the Mississippi voter registration drive. We were still recording lynchings during that period of time, but I did not know it, not in the sense that we know it today.

I thought I knew history pretty well, but I will tell you, until I saw this array of photographs which then sparked my curiosity to read more about it, I had always thought, like most Americans, that a lynching was just slinging a rope over a branch of a tree and that was it. The story is so much more gruesome than that, so much more dark and horrendous as a moment in American history that it is really hard to believe it happened at all in our country, which is another reason it is so important that we are taking this step to remember.

We have seen revisionism in almost every part of history, including the Holocaust. So it is good we are taking this step today, and it is good we have these photographs now brought together as a compilation of history, and it is good that the Senate is taking this effort tonight.

It is extraordinary to think that 99 percent of the perpetrators of lynchings escaped any reach of the law whatsoever. It is incredible to think that almost 5,000 people are recorded as incidents, and how many are not recorded? How many went without the local authorities in each of those communities--who were already complicitous in what happened, standing by, permissive, turning away from basic human rights--how many of those incidents were not recorded?

A lot of us have read a lot about World War II and the Holocaust and other moments of history where there is a knock on the door and life changes. But you have to stop and really think what it was like in all but four States in our country, not just for African Americans but for new people, for folks who had come here from other places to live the American dream. In some cases, they were not knocks, they were just angry mobs screaming and yelling with torches and running rampant through a household, dragging out people screaming. In other cases, there was a pretext, more polite, but it was never polite in what it ended up as.

Lynchings were not just lynchings; they were organized torture. They were incidents of kinds of torture that defied imagination, about which you do not even want to talk, the kinds of things that any decent society ought to stand up against. People were literally tortured for sport in front of people, and crowds would cheer--bedlam. Children were brought to be spectators. Some of these photographs show kids standing there with their eyes wide open and adults standing beside them, who were supposed to be more responsible, glued to the horror they were witnessing.

In the first half of the last century alone, in the 20th century, over 200 antilynching bills were introduced in the Congress--200. Three times, the House of Representatives passed antilynching legislation. Seven Presidents asked for this legislation to be passed. The Senate said no.

So it is important that we are here today to apologize. Some people wonder what the effect of an apology is. We can understand that question being asked. This is sort of a day of reckoning for us as a country, it is a moment for the conscience of our country to be listened to by everybody. It is an embarrassingly and unforgivably late moment in coming, but we are addressing a stain on our history, and we are working to heal wounds across generations. I believe that is important. Some people might try to diminish that, but the very lack of unity I mentioned earlier, in fact, goes to show why this apology is so important and why we all have to keep moving in this direction.

No words, obviously, are going to undo the horror of those 5,000 Americans losing their lives. No apology is going to just wipe away the memories of Mr. Cameron and others, though they have shown a greater graciousness of understanding than others even at this moment.

The fact is that this resolution can be one more step in the effort for all of us to try to get over the divide that still exists between races and as a result of Jim Crow in this country, but only if we face the truth. It is the Bible that reminds us that it is the truth that sets us free. And so it is that we have to embrace it, commit ourselves to putting our hearts and our actions where our words have now preceded us. This should be an important step forward, but, frankly, it will only do that if we do not stop here.

The truth is that it is not enough to face the horror of lynchings if we then just walk out of here and consciously turn away from legally separate and unequal schools in America. It is not enough to decry decades of refusing to use the force of law against lynchings if today we refuse to use the force of law to tear down the barriers that prevent people from voting, barriers in the economy, divisions in the health care system that works for too few of those who are in the minority in America.

It is only by reconciling the past that we have to understand where we have to go in the future and get there. I remind my colleagues to remember the words of Julian Bond when he dedicated that beautiful, simple memorial in Montgomery, AL, to those who gave their lives for civil rights. He said it was erected as much to remember the dead as it was for those young people who cannot remember the period when the sacrifices began, with its small cruelties and monstrous injustices, its petty indignities and its death dealing in inequities. There are many too young to remember that from that seeming hopelessness, there arose a mighty movement, simple in its tactics, overwhelming in its impact. That is why we have to remember the period of the lynchings. That is why this resolution is important--for the young people who do not know what it means to wake up in the middle of the night to hear that knock, for young people to need to commit to help our country complete the journey in order to guarantee we make it all that it promises to be and can be.

We will never erase what Mr. Cameron or Mr. Wright and too many others went through, but we certainly can honor the legacy of these civil rights heroes and the martyrs who came before us by doing right by them and by the country. I hope this resolution will help us do that.

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