State's gesture on slavery was rich with meaning

There was a good moment in the state Legislature this week, a place that doesn't see enough of them.

Republicans and Democrats, the House and the Senate, all unanimously approved a resolution apologizing for the part Florida played in slavery.

"Be it resolved &," the proclamation read, "that the Legislature expresses its profound regret for Florida's role in sanctioning and perpetuating involuntary servitude upon generations of African slaves.

"Be it further resolved that the Legislature calls for healing and reconciliation among all residents of the state."

Sure was a long way from the days when a Florida governor described "persons of African descent" as "an animal, in the form of a man."

(By the way, our current model, Gov. Charlie Crist, indicated that day he would be at least open to the idea of reparations for descendents of slaves as well. One black lawmaker told Times reporter Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler he appreciated the governor's comment, but that would be unlikely given the cost and controversy. Besides, reparations were not what this resolution was about.)

Obviously, this was not the trendy of-the-moment apology we've grown numb to these days, the kind where "I'm sorry" should be followed by "that I got caught." That's the one we get when some celebutante gets busted for DUI or some famous person lets an ugly thought slip or some bad-boy politician gets popped in a public bathroom.

This was something different, something large and nonpartisan and apparently heartfelt.

Yes, it was purely symbolic.

Yes, it was just a gesture.

It was also a workday moment that moved more than one person present to tears, pretty remarkable for a group in which you might assume a distinct lack of functional tear ducts.

So, a question here.

Could someone please explain how a public acknowledgment of a historic wrong that took up not much time on a Wednesday in Tallahassee was offensive?

On newspaper Web sites that posted the story, not a few readers decried the event as a joke, a waste of tax dollars, a distraction from real issues. (Like whether to legislate how much underwear a kid's pants should be allowed to expose, maybe?)

"Why should I apologize?" a reader wrote. "I didn't own any slaves."

"Get over it!" said another.

Some said the message was so obvious and the subject so archaic that this was a waste of time. There is evidence to the contrary.

It is not news to you that struggles over race have hardly disappeared (see Jena, La.). The hate crime statute has not rendered itself obsolete. It wasn't so long ago that a man named Christopher Wilson, a black visitor here from New York, was attacked by white men who doused him in gasoline and set him on fire for no other reason than the color of his skin.

Does a symbolic apology from the state of Florida (not to mention those from the states of Alabama, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and Virginia) change history?

Of course not.

Does it fix wrongs that still plague us?

Of course it doesn't.

It was a gesture, but one with meaning.

And for those who appreciated the moment, the message was clear: This is not who we are.

State's gesture on slavery was rich with meaning 03/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2008 12:46pm]

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