States debate formal apologies for slavery

By Jenny Jarvie ATLANTA, Los Angeles Times

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. What began in the capital of the former Confederacy, with Virginia state legislators in February unanimously passing a resolution expressing “profound regret” over the state’s role in slavery and the Jim Crow era, has caught on elsewhere. 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, with the mayor of Macon, Ga., issuing an executive order apologizing for the city’s role in slavery and the city council of the former slave port of Annapolis, Md., proposing an apology for “perpetual pain, distrust and bitterness” caused to black people. 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 for the illegal internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during World War II and to Hawaiian natives for the illegal 1893 U.S. coup. “An apology is just long overdue.” There is wide agreement that such formal apologies would be largely symbolic political gestures, but there appears to be little consensus on exactly what they mean. Some believe official legislative remorse could have a cathartic effect on 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, detracts from present-day injustices. “The value of such an apology is up for debate,” said James Cobb, a professor of history at 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.” Nowhere has the debate been more fractious than in Georgia, where slaves comprised more than 40 percent 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. Black legislators plan to introduce a resolution Monday, but already the Georgia House Speaker, Republican 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,” Richardson said. “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 the majority Republican legislature supported the apology, the debate began in more strident style in Georgia 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 Association 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. Their resentment also has been piqued by a Senate committee’s unanimous decision to vote for a Republican legislator’s bill to designate April as Confederate History and Heritage month. Though discussion of the nation’s racial history is no longer taboo — 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, more likely than not, did not own slaves. In 1860, less than one-third of Georgia’s adult white male population were slaveholders and only half of those slaveholders owned more than a handful of slaves. “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 significantly perhaps, an emerging generation of black Americans also wants to move beyond debates about the historical injustice of slavery. “I don’t want or need an apology for slavery,” wrote Lyle V. Harris, a black editorial writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who suggested that the NAACP instead should focus on ensuring that black citizens have full access to the ballot box. Opinions within the black community about the usefulness of such apologies tend to divide along age and ideological lines, said William Boone, a political scientist at the historically black Atlanta Clarke University. They resonated more with the older generation, he said, than younger or more conservative, affluent blacks. “I’m not sure the average guy who works from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. is thinking about this,” he said. Still, those who call for an apology argue that the discussion of historical discrimination against black people is deeply connected to present-day inequality. “How can you understand the disparity around us without understanding the reasons for it?” said DuBose of the Georgia NAACP. After an apology, he acknowledged, the next logical step could be reparations for descendants of slaves. Until now, critics have denounced resolutions as a step toward financial settlements and many legislators have taken pains to insist they are only symbolic. “We will ask how did slavery and the Jim Crow era affect education when African-Americans are still suffering in education and how did it affect black farmers who had land taken from them?” DuBose said. “To what extent are African-Americans still second-class citizens?”