Remarks at a UN General Assembly Commemorative Meeting for the Intl Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and Transatlantic Slave Trade

Ambassador Richard Mills
U.S. Deputy Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
March 25, 2021


Thank you, Mr. President, for convening us today to commemorate this important day. Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General, for your participation. And Dr. Coleman, thank you for your powerful words.

A little over 400 years ago, enslaved people were forced onto the shores of the colony of Virginia. That was, as Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said last week, the origins of our “original sin.”

The raw statistics are horrifying. An estimated 12.5 million Africans were put on slave ships during the Transatlantic slave trade. More than one in 12 would die during the Middle Passage. And after they arrived on our shores, they were auctioned off like chattel, forced into hard labor, beaten, raped, killed, and deprived of all forms of freedom. And on those scarred backs, they helped build America – my country. Even the White House was constructed by enslaved peoples.

Throughout U.S. history, many saw the inherent indignity and the inhumanity of slavery, the utter moral wrongness of one human being enslaving another. Former slaves like Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass shared their stories, working with abolitionists to convince my country to abolish this monstrosity. Americans of all stripes risked their lives and opened up their barns, their shops, their cellars, and attics to serve as waystations on the Underground Railroad.

Those courageous enslaved Americans who were able to escape to the north told their own children that they deserved freedom, and justice, and dignity. And somehow, they remained hopeful that chattel slavery would not endure. Eventually that hope burned so bright, and the calls for abolition rang so loud, that they could not be ignored. Yet those who defended slavery chose, instead, to tear the United States apart with a civil war.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment to our Constitution made permanent the illegality and immorality of chattel slavery. But still, as Dr. Coleman has so eloquently said, the fight against white supremacy was far from over. Newly freed slaves were barred from most jobs or from voting in my country. They faced regular terror and violence. But they kept fighting for their rights. Through lynchings. Through the segregation. Through the legal regime of Jim Crow.

On this day of solemn remembrance, as we face the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, we remind ourselves that we are still working to disentangle ourselves from slavery’s wicked web. Too often, Black Americans are funneled into overcrowded schools, receive poorer treatment in hospitals, or are unfairly denied jobs, housing, and access to capital. And of course, slavery’s legacy rears its ugly head most clearly in my country’s policing and criminal justice system.

The tragic, senseless killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans catalyzed a new reckoning with racial justice. The Black Lives Matter movement spread across our country and around the world.

Today, we proudly say that Black Lives Matter.

And now, the White House – the same one that was built by enslaved peoples – is doing everything in its power to right these wrongs and make an equal and just America for all. In his very first week in office, President Biden put forward a strategy: a strategy to embed racial justice and equity across the entire Federal government. He took immediate actions, like redressing housing discrimination and eliminating privately run prisons, to directly oppose what have become institutions of white supremacy.

The new U.S. administration is also deeply committed to addressing the scourge of modern-day slavery, both domestically and overseas. Internationally, the United States has renewed its commitment to work with global and multilateral partners to address the vast scale and complexity of human trafficking and to address systemic disparities that are marginalizing certain communities and emboldening traffickers.

The Biden-Harris Administration is also putting racial equity at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Last week at the Human Rights Council, the United States delivered a joint statement, signed by more than 155 countries, condemning racism and racial discrimination. As we resolve to do more to address the legacy of past transgressions manifested today in systemic racism, we continue to struggle.

As Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield said last week, racism is the problem of the society that produces the racist. And in today’s world, that is every society.

So, let us join together and remember and pay tribute to the millions of victims of slavery, and the pain and the suffering and the violence that has been passed down from generation to generation.

And then, let us honor them and their legacy by taking swift action to end racism and root out oppression wherever it remains.

Thank you, Mr. President.