Last month, Washington’s U.S. Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray co-sponsored a worthy bill to declare Aug. 20 as Slavery Remembrance Day.
Authored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., the proposed national observance would join National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (Dec. 7), Leif Erikson Day (Oct. 9) and Pan American Aviation Day (Dec. 17), among others. It would be a time to reflect and “encourage all to acknowledge the importance of slavery remembrance.”
Aug. 20, 1619, is said to be the date when the first slave ship arrived in Virginia carrying 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists.
The nine-page resolution traces the growth of slavery, and its cost: “Enslaved people suffered a variety of miserable and often fatal maladies due to the Atlantic slave trade, and to inhumane living and working conditions.”
After the Civil War ended in 1865, the mechanisms of discrimination continued: “Jim Crow, mass lynching, segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration, and institutionalized racism.”
“Despite the horrors of slavery and against all odds, enslaved people became thought leaders and revolutionaries and changed the course of American history,” reads the text.
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, drafted the original legislation. According to the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, current House rules prohibit commemorations to reduce the time Congress spends considering and adopting such measures. The most recent exception was Patriot Day (Sept. 11), enacted in 2001.
The Senate process governing commemorative measures is murky. The Senate Judiciary Committee has no published guidelines and no formal rules, but past practice indicates that sponsors need bipartisan support.
Twelve Democratic lawmakers introduced the legislation. So far, not a single Republican senator has signed on.
That remembering this nation’s history has become starkly partisan is disappointing, albeit unsurprising.
There are those who say the country needs to move on. The sins of the past don’t make any difference today. People need to stop feeling sorry for themselves. America won’t be a strong nation if critics keep running it down.
Such sentiments belie fundamental truths. So many things that are uniquely American — gun culture and violence, land-use and highways, music and culture, massive income inequality — were created and influenced by the terrible legacy of slavery. It is fitting that Congress set aside a single day for all Americans to take time to consider its place in the nation’s collective DNA.
Patriotism is not blind faith, but a love of country that acknowledges its history, flaws and hypocrisy.
Ten of the nation’s first 12 presidents may have been slave owners, but their ideas about the unalienable rights of all human beings resonated through the ages, particularly to those descended from slaves. Recognizing slavery’s impact only makes this dissonance more profound.
Cantwell and Murray were right to support this measure. So should their Republican colleagues.
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