About That Slavery Thing

As we all know by now, our state Senate just blocked a resolution that would have apologized for our state’s role in slavery. I’ve got a few things to say about it.

To start, there are valid reasons to oppose the resolution; this is not one of them:

In an emotional exchange with black lawmakers, a Republican took the heat Thursday for again blocking the Alabama Senate’s consideration of a resolution calling for the state to apologize for slavery.

Sen. Charles Bishop of Jasper had the resolution sent to a committee for the second straight day, saying he feared that the wording could lead to reparation lawsuits.

Not gonna happen.

As a practical matter, if you think any judge anywhere in Alabama would ever consider for even a second allowing a lawsuit for reparations, well, you’re nuts.

Besides, nothing in the wording of the resolution even hints at establishing a legal cause of action:

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we express our profound regret as a state which participated in the process of slavery, that we further atone for the involuntary servitude of Africans, and that we call for reconciliation among all Alabamians.

Courts don’t litely infer the creation of legal causes of action. The legislature has to be fairly explicit about it. I don’t see it here.  

Furthermore sovereign immunity would almost certainly bar any lawsuit against the state. That is, both Alabama’s constitution (Section 14) and the US constitution (the Eleventh Amendment) prohibit lawsuits against the state. I think sovereign immunity is a contemptable doctrine – what other employee is immune from penalties imposed by its employer? – but there it is.

Also a resolution has no legal significance. That is, the resolution would not pave the way for lawsits even if it said “Resolved, that anyone who has slave anscestors can sue Charles Bishop for punitive damages.”

Finally, even if it could and did create a cause of action, there would be innumerable problems at trial. Standing, for one; all the folks who were directly harmed are dead. Damages for another; it’s going to be tough to offer proof that something that ended over a century ago has caused concrete harm to a person living today.

In short, Bishop’s rational is so ridiculous that he is either: 1) an idiot, or 2) putting up a smokescreen.

There’s another rationale that I think is dubious, the “Why are we wasting time on resolutions” argument. If you oppose all resolutions, then this argument is valid. But given the amount of resolutions the legislature passes every year, including this year, I’m going to question the motives of someone who singles out this resolution as a waste of time. Senator Bishop, for example, has, according to ALISON, co-sponsored 11 resolutions this session. Among them, SJR 21:

BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF ALABAMA, BOTH HOUSES THEREOF CONCURRING, That we are pleased to commend Carlile’s Barbecue for 52 years of exemplary food, service, and laughter, and by copy of this resolution, we extend best wishes to the owners, staff, and patrons who have treasured this special Birmingham landmark.

Don’t misread me, Carlile’s is worthy of all praise. But anyone who voted for this resolution is barred from ever again arguing that any other resolution is a waste of time.

By contrast here’s an argument against the resolution that is pretty much flat out stupid: “State X in the North allowed slavery. State X has not apologized. Therefore, Alabama ought not apologize.” I might, might, be sympathetic to that argument if State X was the one urging us to apologize. Even then, I don’t think State X’s hypocrisy has anything whatsoever to do with whether the apology is a good idea. But that is not even the case. There are no outside agitators; our own freakin’ legislature is debating the issue.

The final argument with which I am familiar is this one:

“I had nothing to do with those sad, tragic days,” [Senator] Bishop said. “I wish I could change the history of those days in this country. But should I be punished for it, my kids or my grandkids? I don’t think so.”

The simple response is that he is not being punished for it; we’re simply offering an apology.

The more complicated issue is why a person alive today should apologize for something that happened a century and a half ago. I think the answer is that you and I as individuals are not apologizing for our actions; we are apologizing for Alabama’s actions. That Alabama exists as an independent entity ought not shock anyone in this state. I mean, how many times have you heard cries about the “rights” of Alabama? Or the “sovereignty” of Alabama? But an entity like a State can only act through the people who comprise it. That’s why the resolution says we apologize as a state. I’m not apologizing for anything I did, I’m apologzing on behalf of what the state did.

And I have no problem with that. Slavery was awful. Alabama allowed it, protected it, and fought a war hoping to preserve it. Alabama needs to apologize, and the only way Alabama can apologize is through the words and actions of her people.

Explore posts in the same categories: Alabama Legislature

14 Comments on “About That Slavery Thing”

  1. Joe Says:

    But what we really need to apologize for is segregation. See what I had to say yesterday about that.

  2. […] First here’s Dan on the slavery apology. And, though I think that apology is a good idea, that doesn’t mean I think all apologies are a good idea, or even rationale ideas: To the […]

  3. […] Alablawg links to this post with About That Slavery Thing  Filed under AL govt at work email author :: 5 comments(1301) These icons link to social […]

  4. Dan Says:

    Sounds reasonable to me. But for the record, I reguarly bitch about the silly resolutions.

  5. Flashpoint Says:

    […] legislature that would have the state apologize for its role in slavery.  Dan (here and here) and Wheeler have written some good pieces on the debate and I thought I would inject my own two […]

  6. Truman Says:

    of course, everyone of the arguments you use to support an apology, if carried to their logical conclusion, would support reparations.

    So shouldn’t you be arguing FOR reparations?

    I guess that comes later.

  7. wheeler Says:

    “everyone of the arguments you use to support an apology, if carried to their logical conclusion, would support reparations.”

    care to explain how? or are you just interested in being an ass?

    in my defense – and i know logic is a load you really are not equipped to carry, but hang in there – i think there is a material difference between arguing that it would be a good thing for a citizen to apologize for his state, and arguing that the state ought to pay reparations. the former does not in any way make the citizen’s responsible for the sins of the dead, whereas the latter would, via the loss of state resources. hence, i can support an apology while opposing reparations.

  8. Truman Says:

    Why should anyone apologize for something that he is in no way responsible for? If my ancestors hail from Massachusetts and fought and died to free southern slaves, then why should I apologize for an evil that neither I or my ancestors had anything to with? Why should my government apologize presumably on my behalf?

    And if it IS a good thing for me to apologize for something that I had nothing to do with, than wouldn’t it be that much better for me to pay reparations for something that I had nothing to do with?

    Neither would seem to be supported by LOGIC as I understand the term, but perhaps you define the word differently than I do.

    BTW, why is it that whenever someone disagrees with a position that you hold, you attack them personally? Does that have something to do with your peculiar definition of LOGIC?

    Just wondering.

  9. wheeler Says:


    “Why should my government apologize presumably on my behalf?”

    did you even read my initial post? my argument was the EXACT OPPOSITE: That you and I are apologizing on behalf of the state. we are not admitting any personal wrongdoing; we’re acting on behalf of the state, which did do something wrong, but can only act through its citizens.

    btw. i have much respect for honest disagreement, but none for hacks like yourself.

  10. Sailer Says:

    While in an apologetic mode we should also apologise to native americans. We stole their land and murdered them. At least their are 10’s of millions of blacks alive in America arguablly living much better lives than they would be living in africa. But the native americans are virtually gone. We murdered them and they have no descendants. We live on their land and pay no rent. Slavery is an awful institution but it has been illegal in America for a long time. Apologise to the millions of native americans that don’t exist because we stole their land and murdered their ancestors.
    America has always wanted chep labor I am sure that in a few years Illegal immigrants will be suing for past wages and benefits. Once the hispanic population reaches a magic number all of the politicans will be offering up legislation to get their votes. I’d like to get money from the rich english landowners that exploited my Irish ancestors. Unfortunately some of my ancestors were English. My life isn’t going as well as I’d like…it’s got to be someone’s fault. For lack of anyone better to blame I blame the English for occupying Ireland for over 400 years. Of course the English will try to blame it all on the invaders from the mainland. The Dutch are a minority we can blame all the slavery stuff on the Dutch….Of course they will try to blame in on the Portuquese….how far back can we go??? Slavery was acceptable in the bible..blame it on the Jews??? But then the Jews will try to blame it on the Egytians and they don’t have any money. Maybe we should look to the future and not worry so much about the past.

  11. […] An Idiot I did not want to blog about the slavery apology any more, I really didn’t. I’ve already said what I gots to say, and Dan and Demopolite have independently expanded on points I already made. But this just blows […]

  12. patriot Says:

    Re: will the resolution lead to lawsuits?– You don’t know what you are talking about. Sovereign immunity is not an absolute bar to lawsuits against the state. The cause of action does not have to be “inferred” from anything, it would be a straightforward tort suit. And if you don’t think courts sometimes create causes of action and remedial schemes from thin air, read Bivens v. Six Unnamed Known Agents. I’m not “nuts”; you don’t seem to recall the public school funding equalization lawsuits which have been dragging on for decades in Alabama without the state’s consent.

  13. […] already said I think the resolution is a good idea, and that any legislator who objected on reparations ground is either ignorant or putting forth […]

  14. Wheeler Says:

    the difference is that the desegregation suits are not suits for money damages. they are suits asking a court to make alabama equally fund it’s schools; they are not asking for money for the individual plaintiffs. a suit for reparations would ask for money for individual plaintiffs, and that is a no go unless the state had clearly and explicitly allowed it, which a resolution – something with no legal effect – can’t do.

    as for bivens, that’s a lawsuit against individuals; not a lawsuit against the state.

    if anyone wants to sue alabama for money damages – which is what a reparations suit would be – alabama would have to explicitly consent to the suit.

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