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Formal slavery apologies debated

As the movement to express regret grows, some say the measures would be cathartic; others call them useless.

March 19, 2007|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — More than 140 years after slavery was abolished, Congress and a growing number of elected officials in states and cities are wrestling with whether to formally apologize.

The movement began in the former Confederate capital, Richmond, Va., with state legislators last month unanimously passing a resolution expressing "profound regret" over Virginia's role in slavery and the Jim Crow era.

Now, lawmakers in Georgia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Missouri, Massachusetts and Vermont are considering similar measures that would express regret, apologize or create commemorative days.

The wave of contrition has spread to cities too. In Macon, Ga., the mayor issued an executive order last month apologizing for the city's role in slavery. And in the former slave port of Annapolis, Md., the City Council has proposed an apology for "perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness" caused to African Americans.

On the federal level, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) has introduced a House resolution for a national apology.

"America has never apologized for the enslavement of millions of Africans," said Tyrone Brooks, a Democratic Georgia state representative, noting that Congress had apologized to Japanese Americans interned during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the 1893 U.S. coup. "An apology is just long overdue."

There is wide agreement that such apologies would be largely symbolic political gestures, but there appears to be little consensus on what exactly they would mean.

Some believe official legislative remorse could be cathartic to the nation, showing that it is mature enough to confront its past. But others accuse lawmakers of picking an easy battle: Apologizing for blatant historical wrongs such as slavery, they say, only detracts from addressing present-day injustices.

"The value of such an apology is up for debate," said history professor James Cobb of the University of Georgia. "Certainly, for many people, it's not much of an emotional concession to apologize for something you don't really feel responsible for."

In Virginia, critics note, one of the legislators who voted for the apology was Frank Hargrove, a Republican who incensed African American leaders a month earlier by saying black citizens should "get over" slavery.

A deep divide

Nowhere has the debate been more fractious than Georgia, where slaves made up more than 40% of the state's population in 1830. The state ranks second only to Mississippi in the number of lynchings recorded during the Jim Crow era.

African American state legislators plan to introduce a resolution today, but House Speaker Glenn Richardson, who is white, has said an apology for slavery has almost no chance of passing.

"I'm not sure what we ought to be apologizing for," said Richardson, a Republican. "I think slavery was wrong -- absolutely. But no one here was in office then."

Unlike in Virginia, where the sponsor of the resolution worked behind the scenes for four years to ensure that the majority Republican Legislature supported the apology, the debate in Georgia began in more strident style with local NAACP leaders holding a news conference at the state Capitol.

"The ancestors of white slave owners benefited off the backs of African Americans," said Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. "It's time for them to acknowledge that a wrong took place."

Republican legislators' resistance to an apology has strengthened civil rights activists' resolve.

Adding to the activists' resentment is a Senate committee's unanimous decision to vote for a Republican legislator's bill to designate April as Confederate history and heritage month.

Though the nation has become more open to discussion of its racial history -- officials in once die-hard segregationist states have discontinued using confederate flags and constructed civil rights museums -- some say there is no need to go further.

Many white Georgians say they are not responsible for the crimes of their ancestors or point out that their ancestors probably did not own slaves. In 1860, less than one-third of Georgia's adult white male population were slaveholders.

Last week, DuBose suggested it might be constructive to explore the genealogical records of Republican legislators.

"Honestly, I don't know if my ancestors held slaves," said Richardson, adding that his grandfather plowed fields with a mule. "But in the year 2007 in Georgia, we live in economic times when people can overcome whatever they need to overcome. You decide what you accomplish, without regard to race and sex. I don't think slavery plays a part."

More significant perhaps, an emerging generation of African Americans also wants to move beyond debates about the historical injustice of slavery.

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