By JONATHAN TILOVE
March 22, 2007
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
WASHINGTON _ In his first months in office, freshman U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Memphis, has introduced resolutions paying homage to Stax Records and Negro League Baseball, and apologizing for the enslavement and racial segregation of African-Americans.
Cohen says a formal apology by the U.S. government would be a healing act that could generate a revealing examination of slavery’s central role in the making of America and of its legacy for black Americans.
“It’s not just symbolism,” Cohen said during an interview in his Capitol Hill office.
But, for the only white member of Congress representing a majority-black district (Rep. Robert Brady, a Philadelphia Democrat, represents a plurality-black district), the symbolism isn’t bad.
Despite being elected in November by a huge margin in an overwhelmingly Democratic district, Cohen faces decidedly iffy future prospects. In winning Tennessee’s 9th District seat, he succeeded Harold Ford Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate and who himself was preceded by his father, Harold Ford Sr. When he first claimed the seat in 1974, Ford Sr. became the first black member of Congress from the state. Cohen gained the Democratic nomination with less than a third of the vote in a splintered field of 15 candidates _ 11 of them black.
A primary challenge in two years from a strong black candidate in a less crowded field could imperil his re-election. But, if he can get Congress and the president of the United States to apologize for slavery _ well, who knows?
“No question,” said Cohen. “That would be helpful.”
Time will tell whether Steve Cohen is remembered as a notable actor on the national stage or a short-lived novelty act.
Balding, bespectacled and Jewish, Cohen is, visually, a bit of a Woody Allen joke. When he appeared in March on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert intoned in his introduction, “With a constituency that is 60 percent black, what proud Nubian son of Africa represents the Ninth?” A photo of Cohen provided the punch line.
But, while Cohen does do a spot-on Jack Benny impression, he is a serious, confident figure who has shown considerable fortitude treading the racial fault line in a famously polarized city.
“I am in the African-American community more than anybody without a badge and a gun who is Caucasian in Memphis,” Cohen said.
The son of a pediatrician, Cohen has deep roots in the city and served 24 years in the state Senate. There, representing a district a bit more white than black, he established a voting record he has likened to that of a black woman (a claim that led Colbert to ask, “Congressman, are you a black woman?”).
When Harold Ford Sr. retired in 1996, Cohen sought the seat. He objected to political primogeniture, especially, he said, since Harold Jr. was more Washington than Memphis. After losing, Cohen grumbled about how hard it is for a white candidate in a majority-black district.
In 2006, he benefited from a more fractured field and less formidable Fords. In the primary his opponents included Harold’s cousin, Joe Ford Jr., who finished third. Nikki Tinker, a corporate lawyer who had run Harold Ford Jr.’s last two House campaigns and easily outspent Cohen, finished second. In the general election, Harold’s brother, Jake, finished a distant second, running as an independent.
Harold Ford Jr., refused to choose between Cohen and kin in the race, which Cohen believes angered some liberals and cost Ford a chance to shed some of the white antipathy toward his family’s political machine. “I believe that cost Congressman Ford the election,” Cohen said. “It would have offered him the opportunity to show his independence from his family.”
Even before his election, Cohen expressed an interest in joining the Congressional Black Caucus if he made it to Washington, but did not press the idea when it was greeted coolly by some caucus members and cruelly by some commentators.
Undaunted, Cohen in February brought John Conyers, the Detroit congressman who is the dean and founder of the caucus, to Memphis for a lively town meeting at the National Civil Rights Museum, which inhabits the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Conyers, chair of the Judiciary Committee on which Cohen now serves, is also the sponsor of HR 40, a legislative perennial calling for a commission to study reparations. He said he supports both his own legislation and Cohen’s, as does Cohen.
Cohen isn’t the first member of Congress to introduce a resolution calling for an apology for slavery. In 1997, Tony Hall, a Democratic congressman from Ohio and evangelical Christian, introduced one that stirred considerable talk and no action.
But of late, apologizing for slavery is in vogue.
Last year, British Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed his “deep sorrow” for Britain‘s role in the slave trade. Recently, the Virginia Legislature apologized for slavery, and lawmakers in Maryland and Georgia are pressing to follow suit.
Cohen revealed his resolution from the pulpit of Lambert Church of God in Christ in Memphis after a black history program on Feb. 25. He said he hadn’t meant to make the announcement then, but was moved by a performance about slavery that brought home to him how “present” the consciousness of that period _ only two lifetimes ago _ remained in the black community.
Memphis blogger Thaddeus Matthews, who is black, was in church when Cohen made his announcement to a standing ovation. Many of those posting on thaddeusmatthews.com had a more cynical take on the congressman’s motives. But, said Matthews, “What some call pandering, I call good politics.”
Carol Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt University, agrees. She has argued for an apology, and thinks it appropriate that a white member of Congress is taking the lead. And she thinks Republicans could begin to reclaim their mantle as the party of Lincoln by lending their support.
“I believe if it got to President Bush’s desk, he would sign it,” Swain said.
The resolution has 50 co-sponsors _ all Democrats _ including 21 members of the Black Caucus. Cohen, who said the Passover injunction for Jews to remember their time in slavery informed his action, also thinks Bush would sign an apology.
Bush, Cohen said, cares deeply about his relationship with God, and on this issue, Cohen believes, God is on his side.