MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Just ahead, how can a fictional character be so famous and yet so misunderstood? We explore the evolution of "Uncle Tom" as part of NPR's In Character series.
But first, America continues to confront the legacy of slavery more than a century after it ended. On Tuesday, the House of Representatives formally apologized to African-Americans for slavery and the legalized racism of the Jim Crow era. This historic resolution was sponsored by Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a Democrat. He called it the starting point for an honest dialogue about race in America.
Congressman Cohen joins me now to talk more about this. Welcome. Congressman, thank you for speaking with us.
Representative STEVE COHEN (Democrat, Tennessee): Nice to be with you, Michel.
MARTIN: Why now?
Rep. COHEN: Well, because this was the time that we were able to do it. I desired this to be done by President Clinton and wrote him back in 1997. He didn't pursue it. And when I was elected to Congress, I went through my letters and saw that letter where I encouraged him to have an apology for Jim Crow laws and slavery. And I thought, hey, I'm a congressman. I can do this myself.
So I came up, I introduced it as my first proposition in February. We tried to get the Senate to go along with us and be (unintelligible). These negotiations, where Tom Harkin was my sponsor, broke down two weeks ago, and at that point I said, let's go ahead and just do it as a House resolution because the Senate had problems with language going back and forth.
Chairman Conyers(ph) put it on the agenda for this week, and even though I thought maybe it would be better to do it in September, my staff felt like it had a chance to have it heard. It's been 143 years. So we went forward on yesterday.
MARTIN: Now, you are - you represent a majority African-American district in Tennessee. You are not African-America yourself. Were you hearing the need for an apology from your constituents?
Rep. COHEN: I know that there are ramifications that I see in my district because of Jim Crow laws and slavery, as well. I see it. I hear it from people in the district who have talked about other issues, but - and I, as a young man, saw the segregated South, segregated theaters, segregated restaurants, ball fields were - the African-Americans had to sit in the left field bleachers or the worst seats of the football stadium. They only had certain seats for the wrestling matches, et cetera, et cetera.
I just think it's a stain on our society. I've seen states which have apologized. I've seen Tony Blair express regret, and I felt it was something the United States ought to do. I'm a history major. I think history is important. I think statements are important and I wanted to pursue it, and I'm proud that I did.
MARTIN: You're also in a tough re-election campaign. Did that have something to do with it?
Rep. COHEN: Not that tough. I hope you report on it next week. We're going to win at least two to one. It's not even tough. We've polled - it's a lay down. But I'm fighting until the end and I'm not quitting because that's the way I run. They say, run unopposed, are scared, but I'm telling you it's going to be at least two to one. It's not tough.
MARTIN: There's always an interesting - this whole question of apologies for slavery has been much discussed. This year, a couple of states like Virginia and New Jersey have passed slavery apology resolutions. But opinion is divided. Some say, you know, apologies are insufficient, that really more measures, more concrete measures need to be taken. But other people say, let sleeping dogs lie, your picking at an old sore. Why do that? Where do you - how do you assess what are often competing sentiments within the same district?
Rep. COHEN: Well, you know, I see both racism from the - I see racism in the black community, people that say a white man can't represent black people. I mean, I've heard that. That's been spoken at public meetings, and I've seen that. And I've seen people make that - and I've seen white people who are just as racist in an opposite manner about African-Americans or about me, and it's interesting how any issue I take up, I get attacks from both sides.
And blacks might say - some African-Americans might say it's pandering, and some whites will say something similar but in less attractive terms, even if they're sick of being something less attractive mentally than pandering, but they say more figurative, I guess.
And so I see it. There's a problem in the country and I just think you need to do the right thing and try and bring people together, and that's what I've done with my public service. I've been in office 30 years, 24 as a state senator, a couple as a (unintelligible) commissioner up here, and it's what I try to do and what Memphis needs and what the country needs.
MARTIN: How does an apology bring people together, in your view?
Rep. COHEN: It's a catalyst. It's a state, but a catalyst. People can take it from there. My hope is that it's a catalyst for a broader discussion of the problems that I see in my district. I think that in most inner cities, and there's problems, of course, in rural areas, as well, but many African-Americans are in inner cities. Inner cities are hurting, and there are more African-Americans without health care, and I'm signing John Conyer's bill for national single-payer health insurance.
There are more African-Americans with need for help with colleges and I've provided Hope Lottery scholarships in Tennessee. That was a one-man job. For 20 years, we have a lottery scholarship program that gives people....
MARTIN: I understand that, sir, but I'm just wondering, how does an apology help revisit or refresh these conversations? Because I think the argument a lot of people would make, it isn't that we've had these conversations, we're having the same old conversation, and that people can't sort of get out of their rut and how they think about this to the degree they're still interested at all. How does it revive conversations a lot of people don't seem to want to have anymore?
Rep. COHEN: Well, some people don't want to have them. I think it's good to have dialogue. I think I've learned more and more about what the causes of problems have been, and with the effects of versus Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board of Education, didn't share everything in 1954 - that was an opinion. It took time for that to help, and there's still problems, though, because there were secondary schools that the teachers had come from with lesser books and lesser laboratory materials. This went on for years and it's perpetuated over years.
I think that a dialogue is important. I think people can get a better understanding, and I think you need to get votes to do things to help with health care, to help with education, help with job training programs, to help with inner-city housing, and all those things. You have to have Congress people who will vote for it, and to have Congress people vote for it, the dialogue has to be such that they understand that there's a need and the basis for the need.
MARTIN: All right. Congressman Steve Cohen represents the Ninth District in Tennessee. He's a Democrat. He joined us by phone. Congressman, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Rep. COHEN: Nice to talk you, and it's great to represent the fight and night(ph) in Memphis.
MARTIN: All right. And you can read yesterday's apology in its entirety on our Web site. You can go to the Tell Me More page at npr.org.
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