Bill Clinton apologizes for Tuskegee Experiment

President Bill Clinton delivered this speech at the White House on May 16, 1997.
Bill Clinton
Grade Level

President Clinton: 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. 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. It is not only in remembering that shameful past that we can make amends and repair our nation, but it is in remembering that past that we can build a better present and a better future. And without remembering it, we cannot make amends and we cannot go forward.

So today, America does remember the hundreds of men used in research without their knowledge and consent. We remember them and their family members. Men who were poor and African American, without resources and with few alternatives. They believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed.

Medical people are supposed to help when we need care, but even once a cure was discovered, they were denied help, and they were lied to by their government. Our government is supposed to protect the rights of its citizens; their rights were trampled upon. Forty years; hundreds of men betrayed, along with their wives and children, along with the community in Macon County, Alabama, the City of Tuskegee, the fine university there, and the larger African-American community.

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. (Applause.)

Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    Using evidence from the text, describe the speech’s structure.
    The speech begins by laying out its purpose — to recognize and apologize for the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee in an effort to move forward. The speaker then moves to describe in detail who was involved in the research study, why it was done, and who conducted it. The third paragraph goes into more details about the ways in which the men’s rights were violated and how this affected them and their families. Finally, the speech comes full circle to directly address the perpetrator, the victims, and the necessity of the public recognition and apology.
  2. Question
    In the first sentence of the third paragraph, President Clinton declares that “even once a cure was discovered, they were denied help, and they were lied to by their government.” How does this sentence serve as an appropriate introductory sentence for this paragraph?
    It illustrates the extent to which the government was in the wrong and how inhumane the treatment was of these men. The remainder of the paragraph expands on this violation, as well as how the government’s wrongdoing affected these individuals and their families.
  3. Question
    How does remembering the past help “build a better present and a better future”?
    By remembering the past and speaking plainly about it, all of those involved can air their grievances, ideally move forward to a more-productive place, and fight to make sure the same injustices are not repeated.
Reveal Answers