Delegate wants Md. to apologize for slavery

March 30, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN ANNAPOLIS, Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr. wants a public apology for slavery 135 years after the fact. He is a proud and sensitive man wishing simple expression of sorrow for this cruelest act of American history. So naturally, when his bill was heard last week, by the House Committee on Commerce and Government Affairs, it failed.

There were 10 votes in favor of an official apology to black people -- and 10 abstentions.

"Ten abstentions," Burns was saying yesterday, chuckling mordantly. "Highly unusual, I would say."

Profiles in courage, it was not. Some of those who abstained told Burns they had trouble with the language. They don't want him to seek a legislative apology; they'd rather he lean on the governor for any sort of grand gesture.

But maybe something else is going on here, a belief that an apology is an emotional branch office of governmental overkill and, for whites, either an uncomfortable acceptance of their forebears' guilt or act of empty self-flagellation for political peace.

Burns disagrees. In an hour when Pope John Paul II has issued the most stirring and heartfelt expression of sorrow to the Jews, in an America that has apologized to Japanese-Americans for the World War II internment camps, in a world where Australia has apologized to its Aborigines and Canada to its Eskimos, Burns is saying: Why can't Maryland -- and why can't other states that trafficked in human slavery -- apologize to black people?

"What I'm hearing from some people is, `What good is an apology, it's an empty victory,' " Burns, a Baltimore County Democrat, said yesterday. "I disagree. No one has ever said to me, `I'm sorry for what happened to you, I'm sorry for the inhumanity, I'm sorry for the indignities that you suffered.'

"Black people didn't own the clothes on their back, the shoes on their feet, the roofs over their heads. They didn't even have the children they sired. No one has said, `That was terribly wrong, and we're sorry.' To say it would be to say, `I see you as a human being, and as a race deserving of respect.' "

Six score and 15 years after the end of the Civil War, these are words aching with pain. They also are stunning on a few levels: that such an apology has never been made; that such depth of pain still exists over this failure; and the belief that nowhere, not even in the era of great civil rights legislation, was such an apology at least implicit.

"No, I don't think so," Burns said. "The pope's apology to the Jews, that was a great gesture. The American apologies to the Japanese, and the Japanese apology to the Koreans, those were gestures. My wife and I were in Australia, where they mark a Day of Shame for turning the Aborigines into a subservient class.

"Are my people less worthy of an apology? If these countries can do that for their wrongs, should we not do the same?"

Maryland was home to the abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad effort that helped blacks escape slavery. The state was also home to thousands of slaves. This is not a history without blemish.

And, despite the sweeping civil rights gains of the 20th century, Burns believes these are transitory gestures.

"The New Deal did a lot of good for blacks, but Roosevelt never dealt with lynching and he left the military segregated," he said. "The New Frontier, it was the civil rights movement that pushed John Kennedy into the great laws, which weren't passed until after his death. It was the Southern president, Lyndon Johnson, who passed the legislation. But the war in Vietnam and reverse discrimination overturned victories.

"So the gestures have been two steps forward, one step back. We appreciate the gestures. But we want something that will last."

Burns has circulated a petition among House members, seeking signatures backing his proposal. He said he's getting bipartisan, biracial support. He has also talked with the governor, who is "thinking about it."

"And those who don't want to sign, I'm not labeling anybody reactionary or racist," he said.

One more concern has arisen among those reluctant to issue an apology: financial restitution to the descendants of slaves.

"We're not asking for that," Burns said. "That would be very difficult, and possibly unmanageable. But it might be worth thinking about some kind of educational fund. If anything could lift us, it's education.

"But all we're asking now is an apology. Let us know that what happened to black people in this country should not have happened."

It won't change history. It will not undo the damage. But maybe it acknowledges the pain in a way that America never has, and allows us to move on.

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