Thursday, March 29, 2007

Slavery apology must reconcile forefathers' sins

For many Texans, the call for a formal apology from the Legislature for the state's history of supporting slavery sounds like politically correct blather and empty symbolism.

One group opposes any apology, arguing that no one living today owned a slave and penitence is unnecessary. Gov. Rick Perry aligned himself with them when, asked about an apology, he said he prefers to prepare for the future rather than dwell on the past. Another faction says just pass a resolution expressing regret and move on.

Both miss the point. Slavery was an accepted institution on these shores for 240 years, and its legacy is with us to this day — whether we like it or not and whether we acknowledge it or not. Slavery's vestige is in the rebel flag, in the statues of Confederate leaders on the University of Texas campus and at the Capitol and in African Americans' long civil rights struggle.

A decade ago, the debate was over remnants of the Confederate battle flag. Some states, such as Georgia, had incorporated it into the state flag. Others, such as South Carolina, proudly flew the Stars and Bars over the state Capitol. As those battles subsided, the push for formal apologies surged. Last month, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution expressing "profound regret" over its role in slavery and segregation.

Other Southern states, including Texas, are discussing similar resolutions. They can be easily misunderstood. The discussion is not about a Legislature, or Congress, saying "sorry" and moving on. It is about acknowledging an egregious wrong done to a race and understanding its effects on their descendants and the nation.

It's also about education. Americans are a forward-looking people, always pushing on to the next frontier. So the institution of slavery and its effects have been brushed aside in the rush toward tomorrow. Plus, it is a painful truth to have to face.

But we should not turn away from that pain. We should pause to consider the awfulness of human bondage, confess that the wealth of the nation was built on the backs of slaves and recognize that its effects linger. Texans should dwell long on the state's embrace of slavery, incorporate that reality into the textbooks and make it part of the history Texans study.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis and state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, both Houston Democrats, are working to find bipartisan support for a resolution acknowledging this state's role in slavery. It's a difficult, but worthy, undertaking.

Democratic state Rep. Yvonne Davis, of Dallas, has filed a bill to create a curriculum commission to ensure that state education policy includes a factual, thorough recounting of slavery, its effects and the state's role in propagating it. HB 2874 challenges lawmakers and educators to understand the roots and effects of slavery and teach that to future generations.

Americans are incensed at the Japanese government's reluctance to formally apologize for forcing women into sexual slavery during World War II. We should feel the same way about formal apologies for enslaving Africans, brutally stealing their humanity and reducing them to property.

Yes, the Legislature should resolve to apologize for the state's embrace of slavery. But more than that, it should insist that a comprehensive recounting of our national shame be part of every student's education.

Legislative apologies should not simply say, "We're sorry." They should concede that this was a deeply disgraceful part of our history, and we must understand it and learn from it.

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