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When Bill Clinton Asked Black America to Forgive the U.S. for Tuskegee

It was intended to be an apology, but it ultimately turned into the most powerful man in the world requesting Black Americans to once again forgive the wrongs done to us

2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.

Albert Julkes Jr.’s father was intentionally infected with syphilis through a government-run study designed to last six months but instead lasted 40 years. “You get treated like lepers,” the then 55-year-old recalled. “People think it’s the scourge of the earth to have it in your family.” 

Julks shared the painful family memory when President Bill Clinton, on behalf of the United States, apologized to the survivors and their families of the experiement known as the “Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male.”

It was May 16, 1997, when Clinton stood at a podium and apologized to the five Black men, all from Alabama, who traveled to the White House to hear the atonement in person. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1972, venereal disease investigator Peter Buxton blew the whistle on the 40-year study, starting in 1932, of 600 Black men who’d been intentionally and unknowingly infected with syphilis by the U.S. government. Soon after he spoke to a reporter, Buxton’s story made the front page of the New York Times, followed by congressional hearings and a class-action lawsuit.

Buxton’s report also revealed the government’s heinous and flagrantly unethical medical research had continued long after it became well known that penicillin cured syphilis. They never offered the men treatment, and instead, when participants died, researchers offered free burials to family members in exchange for autopsies. It was systemic medical malpractice on a scale not seen since the Nazis performed their abhorrent medical research in concentration camps.

“The eight men who are survivors of the syphilis study at Tuskegee are a living link to a time not so very long ago that many Americans would prefer not to remember, but we dare not forget,” Clinton said, addressing the survivors and gathered dignitaries. “It was a time when our nation failed to live up to its ideals, when our nation broke the trust with our people that is the very foundation of our democracy.”

At the start of his speech, Clinton addressed the eight survivors of the Tuskegee experiment: Carter Howard, Frederick Moss, Charlie Pollard, Herman Shaw, Fred Simmons, Sam Doner, Ernest Hendon and George Key. All of them were over the age of 90, with the eldest, Shaw, celebrating his 110th birthday that weekend.

The apology was the culmination of an effort by the National Medical Association, an organization of 20,000 Black doctors who were well aware that many of their Black patients had a growing mistrust of the medical establishment. As such, these patients were less likely to seek out care, less likely to follow preventive care recommendations and less likely to participate in clinical trials. Essentially, the community-wide distrust of the modern medical field, made far worse by Tuskegee, was indirectly costing Black lives. So, the group of Black doctors lobbied the White House for the long-overdue apology to begin the steps of earning back that trust.

Clinton began by speaking in abstracts, but then moved to a more formal apology: “The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong. It was an outrage to our commitment to integrity and equality for all our citizens. To the survivors, to the wives and family members, the children and the grandchildren, I say what you know: No power on Earth can give you back the lives lost, the pain suffered, the years of internal torment and anguish. What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

Clinton included the wives and family members in large part because they also suffered directly from the syphilis that their husbands and fathers brought home from the hospital. As the New York Times highlighted in its contemporaneous coverage, “The wives and children they may have unwittingly exposed to the disease — have remained largely unseen and unheard, bearing in silence a legacy of anger and shame as well as possible damage to their health.” 

On its surface, Clinton’s apology seemed like a pivotal moment in American history. But that wasn’t true. Not then, and not now. Clinton noted that funds would be invested in a bioethics program at the Tuskegee Institute, and studies would be conducted to examine racial bias in medicine. But nothing of much lasting value was offered to the descendants still living in rural Macon County. 

Instead, the most powerful man in the world asked the elderly survivors and their families to do the heavy lifting. “But you have the power, for only you — Mr. Shaw, the others who are here, the family members who are with us in Tuskegee — only you have the power to forgive,” Clinton offered in his empathetic yet self-serious tone. “Your presence here shows us that you have chosen a better path than your government did so long ago. You have not withheld the power to forgive. I hope today and tomorrow every American will remember your lesson and live by it. Thank you, and God bless you.”

The U.S. government had the power to make amends, to atone for its amoral mistreatment of 600 Black men and their families. Instead, a Democratic politician, yet again, asked Black Americans to forgive the wrongs done to us, for decades, and for centuries before that. 

The men of the Tuskegee experiment suffered because their own government infected them with syphilis just to see what would happen. The families of these men, whose health was exploited and whose very humanity was denied by their own government, bear the lasting scars of this trauma. As the niece of two study participants said, “The tears came a long time ago for me, when we really needed the medicine.”

Black Americans still need medicine today, and we’re still not getting it. Now, 25 years since Clinton’s apology and 50 years since Buxton exposed Tuskegee’s horror, perhaps the American government can look beyond apologies and forgiveness and put energy into material change, rather than symbolic gestures with all the weight of a get-well-soon card.