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Observing the 200th Anniversary of the Abolition of the British Slave Trade

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. PITTS. Madam Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

I thank the gentlewoman from Florida (Ms. Ros-Lehtinen) for yielding and for her principled leadership on the Foreign Affairs Committee, and I thank the gentleman from New Jersey (Mr. Payne) for his leadership on this and the preceding resolution, and for his leadership on the issue of human rights in general around the world.

Madam Speaker, with this resolution, we rightly honor one of humanity's great heroes. William Wilberforce was a man of integrity, a man of courage, a man of faith, and a man of principle. And he used these qualities, Madam Speaker, to forever change the world for the better. He is someone that each of us in this Chamber can relate to and draw inspiration from.

In a legislative body of 435 Members, it can be difficult to make progress on the issues we care about. Indeed, the odds sometimes appear insurmountable.

But the life and accomplishments of William Wilberforce are proof that individuals of character truly can change the world. Wilberforce was himself a member of an elected legislative body. He was first elected to the British Parliament more than 220 years ago.

In his day, the human slave trade dominated England's economy. As a result, the interests of the slave traders were firmly entrenched in the halls of Parliament. Arguments used to justify the sale and trade of human beings and the horrific injustices that occurred in that trade were commonplace in that day.

But William Wilberforce refused to accept these arguments. He knew that slavery was an unspeakable injustice, and he made it his object to end it. This conviction would lead him on a decades-long effort to end slavery in England. It was a journey full of setbacks and disappointments. Again and again, he introduced his bill in parliament to end the British slave trade. Again and again it was soundly defeated, and again and again he was ostracized by his peers. For years this went on, and the discouragement grew.

But all the while, Wilberforce's call to conscience was slowly winning over hearts and minds. His willingness to stand for what was right and fight what was wrong was being noticed by his colleagues. And after 20 years of perseverance, 20 years of unbending principle, 20 years of standing for justice in the face of daunting odds, Wilberforce at last tasted success.

On February 23, 1807, Parliament voted, and on March 25, the King signed the bill that outlawed the British slave trade, a move that was once thought impossible.

And 26 years later, Wilberforce was informed a few days before his death that the House of Commons had finally voted to abolish slavery altogether in the British Empire.

Madam Speaker, throughout this year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of this tremendous accomplishment. And as part of this celebration, a number of efforts are underway to inform people of this often-forgotten hero of humanity and his colleagues who worked to end in slavery.

We could mention others, like John Newton, who has already been mentioned. John Newton was a former slave trader who wrote the hymn ``Amazing Grace,'' whose testimony before Parliament was so influential.

We could mention John Wesley, who a week before he died in 1791, wrote William Wilberforce about American slavery which he called ``the vilest form of slavery known to mankind.''

We could mention Wilberforce's direct influence on John Quincy Adams, and John Quincy Adams' direct influence on Abraham Lincoln. There are many people who could be mentioned, but this resolution before us today is part of the celebration of the life and accomplishments of William Wilberforce, and are certainly worthy of recognition.

Madam Speaker, I would submit this is not merely an effort to look back and give credit where credit is due, it is also a call to fight modern-day injustice.

Sadly, every generation must confront evil in its own time, and ours is no different. Around the world, thousands of people are deprived of their basic human rights every single day. Good men and women of this world have a moral duty to fight these modern-day injustices.

The U.S. State Department estimates that approximately 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked each year into slavery, into the sex industry, other slave-like labor conditions.

In South Asia, an entire class of people numbering in the millions are considered to be ``untouchable,'' and as a result, they are denied basic services and subjected to terrible living conditions. Horrible human rights abuses continue in places like Burma and Sudan and China and many others. These are just a few examples. The list could go on.

Madam Speaker, as we honor William Wilberforce, may we also be inspired today to educate ourselves and others about modern-day injustice, inspired to not turn a blind eye to millions of people worldwide who need our help; and inspired, Madam Speaker, to act.

I urge all of my colleagues to support this important resolution.

Madam Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.


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