Hickenlooper National Action Network Convention

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, addresses the National Action Network Convention in New York, Friday, April 5, 2019.

Democratic presidential candidate John Hickenlooper said Friday that the president must apologize for slavery, which he called "the nagging, unrelenting shame of America."

The former Colorado governor also said he supports legislation to study whether African Americans should be paid reparations for slavery and called for ending long-term solitary confinement and other criminal justice reforms.

Speaking at the  four-day National Action Network conference in New York, Hickenlooper touted his record attacking police misconduct as Denver mayor and pointed to changing the emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation and treatment for drug users when he was governor.

"We must acknowledge that our criminal justice system is rooted in structural inequality. From slavery to government-sponsored discrimination in housing, from voting suppression to the war on drugs, all [were] used to control people and limit their political power."

He drew cheers when he called for a presidential apology for slavery. He did not say whether the apology should come from President Donald Trump or a future president.

"A great country should acknowledge its mistakes," Hickenlooper said.

"Slavery is the nagging, unrelenting shame of America that continues to deny the true promise of the country to too many of its citizens. We must own our past and acknowledge the shame, the sin, the injustice, and the ongoing consequences of enslaving an entire race of people. We must apologize, and that apology must come from the Oval Office," he added.

During his speech, Hickenlooper threw his support behind a bill — sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat — to establish a commission tasked with making "recommendations concerning any form of apology and compensation to begin the long-delayed process of atonement for slavery."

“Congress should convene a study on the best way to provide reparations," Hickenlooper said. "'Equality for all' can no longer be a political phrase."

Other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have said they support the measure, including U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey.

On Wednesday, former U.S. Rep. Robert "Beto" O'Rourke of Texas endorsed the notion, reversing his earlier opposition to reparations for slavery.

After the convention, Hickenlooper was scheduled to travel to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, which commemorates lynching victims. On Saturday, he plans to join survivors of the Mother Emanuel Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, for a discussion and dinner.

As governor, Hickenlooper issued a formal apology for the Sand Creek Massacre at a Dec. 2, 2014, ceremony on the steps of the state Capitol marking the 150th anniversary of the attack by a Colorado territorial militia on Cheyenne and Arapaho villagers in southern Colorado.

“We should not be afraid to criticize and condemn that which is inexcusable," Hickenlooper said, addressing tribal leaders and descendants of the victims of the massacre, which killed nearly 200 women, children and the elderly.

“On behalf of the State of Colorado. I want to apologize to the runners, to the tribal leaders and to all the indigenous people, and the proud and painful legacy, you represent. On behalf of the good, peaceful, loving people of Colorado, I want to say we are sorry for the atrocity that our government and its agents visited upon your ancestors." 

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