The Senate adopted a resolution Thursday offering a formal apology for slavery and the era of "separate but equal" Jim Crow laws that followed.
After the clerk finished reading the resolution (S Con Res 26) in full, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, the measure's sponsor, noted that Congress has never before issued a formal apology for slavery.
"It's long past due. A national apology by the representative body of the people is a necessary collective response to a past collective injustice," Harkin said. "So it is both appropriate and imperative that Congress fulfill its moral obligation and officially apologize for slavery and Jim Crow laws."
The Senate action comes more than 40 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, 146 years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and in the same year Barack Obama was sworn in as the first African-American president.
The non-binding resolution, which does not have the force of law, includes a disclaimer stating that the measure does not authorize or support reparations for the descendants of African slaves brought to the United States before the Civil War.
The inclusion of the disclaimer in the Senate resolution has drawn sharp criticism from members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Soon after the Senate approved the measure on a voice vote, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said the disclaimer is "unnecessary language."
"If that is what it says, I don't support it," Waters said.
House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., has for years made little headway with his proposals for the federal government to consider some form of reparations.
But Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala., who is trying to become the first black governor of his Deep South state, said he was glad about the Senate action, and added that the Congress is overdue in apologizing for slavery.
Alabama approved an apology for slavery two years ago, following similar actions by legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina.
If Alabama can do it "it's probably not such a hard thing for Congress to do it," Davis said.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Roland W. Burris, the lone African-American senator, took to the floor to praise the resolution.
"Some in the black community will dismiss this resolution. Some will say that words don't matter -- that the actions of our forefathers cannot be undone," Burris said. "But words do matter. They matter a great deal."
Burris acknowledged that the reparations disclaimer concerned him. "I want to go on record making sure that that disclaimer in no way would eliminate future actions that may be brought before this body that may deal with reparations," he said.
Rep. Steve Cohen D-Tenn., a white Democrat from Tennessee who represents a black majority district, sponsored a slavery apology resolution that was adopted by the House last year.
Cohen, whose resolution was silent on reparations, said the House might act again this year.
"The House may do a resolution similar to the Senate or just rest on the one we passed last year," said Cohen.
"I think it's historic that the Senate passed a resolution," he said, adding that the Senate would not have acted if the House had not adopted his earlier resolution last year. Cohen said he would prefer a resolution that was silent on reparations, but said he understood why the disclaimer was needed for Senate passage.
"I prefer my language but I am not a member of the Senate," said Cohen.
Now that both chambers have acted, plans are in the works for a ceremony in the Capitol rotunda on July 7 to commemorate the action, he said.
It isn't often that Congress offers a formal apology. In the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (PL 100-383), Congress apologized to the Japanese who were forced to live in internment camps during World War II. During a debate on an Indian health bill last year, the Senate adopted an amendment apologizing for the U.S. legacy of brutality against Native Americans. And in 2005, the Senate adopted a resolution apologizing for its history of filibustering legislation designed to combat lynching of African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bennett Roth contributed to this story.