In June of 1961, Ambassador Malick Sow of the newly independent African nation of Chad was en route to Washington, D.C. to present his credentials to President John F. Kennedy and stopped for coffee at a diner on Maryland’s Route 40. The diner’s white female owner greeted him with the announcement that black people were not welcome there. When asked about the incident by Life magazine, she felt no need to apologize, explaining, “He looked like just an ordinary run-of-the-mill nigger to me. I couldn’t tell he was an ambassador.”
Sow’s experience was not unusual even for an ambassador. A string of similar incidents had already occurred along Route 40 as Jim Crow rolled out the unwelcome mat for African ambassadors traveling between New York and the nation’s capital. As the embarrassments accumulated, international observers saw duplicity in American claims of liberty and equality, as Cold War competition for influence in Africa made the continent a high priority for the U.S. and Soviet Union. Under the circumstances, the Kennedy administration was forced to offer an official apology to the many offended African ambassadors. Soon afterward, the president appointed a federal task force to enforce desegregation along Route 40.
But where international politics succeeded in securing an apology for the discrimination suffered by a handful of black African statesmen, more than 50 years later, black Americans still haven’t received a state apology for subjugation and discrimination at the hands of their own country. This is not because of some national stance against apologies. In 1988, for example, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation, complete with reparations, extending a formal apology for Japanese-American internment on American soil during World War II. In 1997, President Bill Clinton offered a presidential apology for the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study that the U.S. Public Health Service launched in the 1930s, to study the disease in hundreds of infected black men while falsely claiming to be providing them proper treatment. By contrast, congressional resolutions apologizing for slavery, passed separately by the House in 2008 and the Senate in 2009, were never reconciled or signed by the president. Far from constituting a state apology, they carry all the weight of resolutions passed to congratulate Super Bowl victors.