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America Says It's Sorry for the Era of Enslavement

On June 18th, the United States Senate issued a proclamation formally apologizing for slavery that ended almost 150 years ago in the American South.

The Senate's only black member, Roland Burris of Illinois, said the measure was significant and long overdue but in no way would eliminate future actions that may deal with reparations.

But reparations - or monetary atonement for past injustices - are a stickier proposition than an apology.

In 1988, Congress voted to pay $20,000 to each survivor of Japanese-Americans who were interred in camps on the U.S. West Coast during World War II. But no such payments have been forthcoming to descendants of America's black slaves who contributed hard, unpaid toil to the southern economy for two-and-one-half centuries.

As Union general William Tecumseh Sherman marched through the South, liberating slaves by the thousands, he guaranteed each freedman's family 40 acres - or about 16 hectares - and one of the Army's mules with which to start a new life.

Congress endorsed such payments to each of the four million slaves who survived the Civil War. But President Andrew Johnson rescinded the measure. And ever since, efforts to get Congress to even discuss reparations have failed to get out of committee.

The modern equivalent of 40 acres and a mule has become a rallying cry of reparations supporters, who say that it's only right and just that the wrongdoer repair, with money, the damage that was done. Repair is the root word in reparations.

Opponents say reparations are a recipe for racial hatred. As white Congressman Henry Hyde once argued, "I never owned a slave. I never oppressed anybody. I don't know that I should have to pay for someone who did, generations before I was born."

And so go the arguments today, without resolution.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.