Is There a Right to Forget? 535
to 1865 it may have been immoral but was not yet illegal. Also, some argue that the federal government cannot be held liable for slavery and, therefore, cannot apologize for it. Instead, civic and private entities such as churches should apologize for racism as a step toward reconciliation.42 In response to this view, advocates for restitution must dene slavery as an injustice that was perpetrated not by unknown forces, but by individuals, corporations, and governments backed up by federal and state laws. Thus, federal and state governments as well as corporations can be held responsible for rectifying the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow.43
The powerful often state that time will heal all wounds and injustices. However, as Melissa Williams states, “Time does not heal the wounds of injustice when it leaves in place the institutions and practices that embody that injustice.”44 Here we can recall two important insights derived from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s philosophy of nonviolent disobedience in the 1950s–1960s. First, in response to his critics who told him to “slow down” and not to push too fast for change, King rejected the myth that time heals all wounds. For King, “time is neutral: it can be used either destructively or constructively … Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [and women].”45 And second, in response to the “do-nothingism” that rests on this myth of time, King also explained why direct action is needed to pursue justice. For King,
we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.46
In the present moment, advocates of apologies, reparations, and restitution are in many ways following King’s lead. Tension and resentment are already here, and will only go away if we ameliorate the underlying injustices on which they rest.
Barkan identies another underlying issue that often precludes any dis- cussion of an apology for slavery: guilt. Many whites view an apology as black Americans foisting guilt upon them for something they personally had no part of. To avoid the paralysis of guilt, the debate about historical injustices is best seen not as a matter of labeling guilt and innocence, but about identifying
42 Patrick Glynn, “Racial Reconciliation: Can Religion Work Where Politics Has Failed?” A m e r i c a n B e h a v i o r a l S c i e n t i s t 4 1 ( 1 9 9 8 ) , p p . 8 3 4 – 8 4 1 . 4 3 For more detail, see Boris Bittker and Roy Brooks, “The Constitutionality of Black Reparations,” in When Sorry Is Not Enough, pp. 374–389. Recently, lawsuits have been brought against corporations that proted from slavery, a strategy supported by Charles O g l e t r e e o f H a r v a r d U n i v e r s i t y . 4 4 45 Williams, op. cit., p. 197. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in Why We Can’t Wait (New Y o r k : M e n t o r , 1 9 6 4 ) , p . 8 6 . 4 6 Ibid., p. 85.