Clinton's Gesture Falls Short of What Justice Demands

The Rev. James Lawson, a major figure in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, is pastor of Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles. The Rev. Madison T. Shockley II is pastor of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship, United Church of Christ, in Mid-City Los Angeles

We applaud the fact that President Clinton has seen fit to put the African continent on the American political agenda in a positive and respectful way. He thus has elevated a shortsighted and crisis-oriented policy to a new level of thoughtfulness and proactivity.

We were impressed with the president's attempt to couch the history of the relationship between the United States and the peoples of Africa within the religious category of "sin." For truly this is where it belongs. But we found both his historical and contemporary analysis of that relationship quite inadequate. Clinton's remarks acknowledging that "before we were even a nation, European Americans received the fruits of the slave trade. And we were wrong in that," were more of a confession than an apology for slavery. And a very limited confession at that. After all, it's not as though one Christmas morning the 13 colonies simply received a fruit basket from Europe filled with Africans. No, the colonies and the United States after them were active participants in the solicitation, acquisition, transportation and exploitation of Africans as slaves. This was a phenomenon that decimated many parts of the continent and depopulated whole regions. Estimates of Africans who died as a result of slavery and colonization range from 60 million to 200 million. For an apology to have its intended effect, a full confession, though not sufficient, is a prerequisite.

More disturbing, however, is Clinton's astonishing assertion that "the worst sin America ever committed about Africa was the sin of neglect and ignorance." The sin of slavery notwithstanding, we only wish America had left Africa alone. The facts are quite to the contrary. The U.S. has continuously been involved with Africa in ways detrimental to African peoples. Historically, even after the slave trade ended, the U.S. continued to receive the benefits of the European colonization and exploitation of Africa for another hundred years in the form of mineral resources, raw materials and agricultural products.

Further, in the post-colonial era, America has continued to receive more, economically, than it has given to Africa. The debt payments to Western banks and a positive trade balance have continued to undermine sound economic development on the African continent. Politically, the United States has never left Africa alone. Rather than supporting the aspirations of emerging African states for liberty and freedom, the United States actively supported the colonial powers in their attempts to keep Africa in a subservient position. The U.S. sent napalm and helicopters to Portuguese forces to put down freedom movements in Angola and Mozambique. America supported the racist forces resisting freedom in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The CIA was active across the continent subverting progressive governments. No, Mr. President, America has not neglected Africa.

Clinton's overture has value and will win new friends on the continent. We are glad for the aid for education, agriculture and economic development. But the amount of U.S. aid to the collective nations south of the Sahara is dwarfed by our aid to Israel. If we could stop the massive arms supplies from flowing out from our shores to every local conflict in Africa, we might begin to make some real progress.

Africa, generally, has been judged too hastily by the American public as a disaster. We must recognize that outside of Ethiopia, Sub-Saharan Africa only began to enter the modern community of nations within the past 40 years. For Clinton's gesture to become more than a cosmetic attempt to stake a claim to history, he must truly decide what justice demands in regard to Africa. We feel America should give back to Africa in proportion to what America has received from Africa.

The president further commented on the African Americans in his delegation as an example of how America has benefited from its relationship to Africa. To us, it only begs the questions: How would Africa be different today if Martin Luther King Jr. had been a Nigerian? Or if Barbara Jordan had been a Somali? Or if Paul Robeson had been a Rwandan? Or if Thurgood Marshall had been a Sudanese? Or if Fannie Lou Hamer had been a Liberian? Maybe an African president would be visiting us instead.

History is important, so let us not forget the ancient civilizations of Africa that made long-standing essential contributions to human civilization. On the clock of human history, the recent difficulties of the continent represent only a few seconds. We look forward to Africa once again resuming its rightful place and blessing the whole of humankind.

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