Lawmakers Apologize for Virginia's Role in Slavery

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This weekend, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" for the state's role in slavery. The symbolic measure describes slavery as the most horrendous of all depredations of human rights, and a violation of the founding ideals of the nation.

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rebecca Roberts sitting in for Debbie Elliot.

Politics and race are capturing our attention this weekend. On Fox News Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was asked about presidential candidate Barack Obama. She said his popularity shows African-Americans have come along way.

Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): I will say race is still a factor. When a person walks into a room, I still think people still see race. But it's less and less of a barrier to believing that that person can be your doctor or your lawyer or a professor in your university or the CEO of a company. And it will not be long, I think, before it's no longer a barrier to being president of the United States.

ROBERTS: Still, race is very much a part of the country's identity and the legacy of slavery still figures into the debate. Just today, the New York Daily News reported this: Genealogists have found the ancestors of civil rights activist Al Sharpton were slaves owned by the ancestors of the late Senator Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist. Reverend Sharpton called the revelations the most shocking thing in my life.

And this weekend, Virginia became the first state to apologize for slavery. Lawmakers unanimously passed a resolution expressing profound regret for slavery and for the exploitation of Native Americans. It's a symbolic non-binding measure.

NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES: The vote took place in Richmond on the grounds of the former capital of the Confederacy, and sponsors say the resolution is the first of its kind in the nation. The measure states in part, quoting here, that slavery is the most horrendous of all depravations of human rights and violations of our founding ideals in our nation's history.

Mr. DONALD McEACHIN (Virginia Democratic Delegate): I'm just as proud of my colleagues as I can be. And yes, this is history-making.

KEYES: Democratic delegate Donald McEachin sponsored a bill in the House. He's African-American and the great-grandson of a North Carolina slave who moved to Virginia after the Civil War. Virginia began passing slave laws soon after the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, and the state has a long segregationist history, including the use of poll taxes to keep blacks from voting and state-sponsored resistance to school desegregation in the 1950s and '60s.

Mr. McEACHIN: I think it's another step on the road to healing. For there to be true reconciliation there has to be an apology.

KEYES: The resolution acknowledges that the most abject apology for past wrongs cannot right them. Yet it says the sprit of true repentance on behalf of a government can promote reconciliation and healing. Virginia lawmakers battled for weeks over the precise wording of the measure. They avoided words like atonement, which some felt could lead to demands for reparations. NAACP board chairman Julian Bond says something material could have been done as well but he's glad for the symbolic gesture of regret.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (NAACP): Virginia like all the other Southern states rose to its present position of wealth and prominence on the backs of people who worked for hundreds of years without any pay, and of course without any rights at all. And it's always seemed to me that some recompense is owed for that. I'm happy it was done, but it's not enough.

KEYES: Still, Bond says even a symbolic gesture means something.

Mr. BOND: I think you're going to see other states do something similar and that's to the good. It's always good when people say they're sorry for things that they themselves may not have done but that they benefited from.

Mr. B. FRANK ERNUS(ph) (Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans): If anyone is going to apologize for slavery, it needs to be the world.

KEYES: B. Frank Ernus commands the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Mr. ERNUS: The Dutch, the Spanish, the English and the United States, including the New England states, that shipped the slaves in. Not just Virginia. Why is Virginia - we're by no means the starter or end of slavery.

KEYES: But Delegate McEachin says it was appropriate that Virginia apologized, and he says words matter. And this resolution is another step in the reconciliation that needs to take place in this country. The Virginia lawmaker says legislators in three other states as well as a National Conference of State Legislators have contacted him expressing interest and similar resolutions.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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