June 14, 2007 — Vol. 42, No. 44
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Arkansas governor not sure if slavery apology is needed

Andrew DeMillo

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — As attention begins to focus on the 50th anniversary of the 1957 Central High School crisis in the fall, some Arkansas lawmakers are looking even further back.

Black legislators are torn over whether it would be appropriate for the state to apologize for years of slavery.

On May 31, Alabama became the fourth Southern state to formally apologize for slavery. A member of Arkansas’ Legislative Black Caucus said last Tuesday she would like Gov. Mike Beebe to issue a statement of regret, perhaps in time for the Sept. 25 Central High anniversary.

Beebe said he didn’t know if an apology is needed.

“I think Arkansas probably has as good a feel for folks working together as any Southern state or any other state, so I think we’ve moved past that,” Beebe told The Associated Press.

Asked whether he would sign an apology if legislators approved one, the governor said, “I’d have to deal with it then.

“Race relations and the ability of people to get along is based upon deeds more than it is words and we’ll be judged by how we treat one another. That’s how we should be judged,” said Beebe, who is white.

Legislators meeting this year did not discuss the subject. Unless called into a special session, the General Assembly is not set to meet again until 2009. Legislators in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia have also issued formal apologies.

State Rep. Wilhelmina Lewellen, D-Little Rock, said a proclamation would be appropriate.

“I just think that it’s time and it would serve as a great healing point. Certainly, as I think about our state, I think they’re ready to make this decision,” said Lewellen, who is black.

But the head of the black caucus said the issue isn’t a major one.

“I have not addressed it presently as a priority,” said state Sen. Irma Hunter Brown, D-Little Rock. “I do embrace it as an issue of history that should be discussed and never be forgotten.”

This year, Little Rock is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. The celebration will include a display at the Clinton presidential library of a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln’s 1863 order freeing slaves.

State Sen. Tracy Steele, D-North Little Rock, said he believes the timing would be perfect for an apology given the upcoming anniversary, but said he would rather see one enacted through legislation rather than by a proclamation.

“I think it’s just a matter of being in the legislative code, being a part of our legal record of what needs to be done in our state,” said Steele, who is black.

Arkansas in December will host the annual convention of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. Steele said he would expect an apology to receive more attention then — and Lewellen said she hoped Beebe would issue a proclamation by then.

Another member of the caucus questioned whether it is appropriate for black people to request an apology — though he would accept one.

“They should not have to ask for such an apology,” said Sen. Hank Wilkins IV, D-Pine Bluff. “I think it cheapens the apology on the part of the one who is apologizing.

“I think that whenever there has been a wrong done to the magnitude of that which slavery represents, an official apology is always in order,” Wilkins said. “While it doesn’t change the past, it certainly has the potential for providing positivity for the future.”

Rep. Willie Hardy, D-Camden, who is black, said nothing is needed.

“I just think it’s meaningless to apologize for slavery when slavery is over,” he said.

(Associated Press)

Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe (upper right) unveils a mock coin commemorating the efforts of the Little Rock Nine (seated at left), who helped desegregate Little Rock Central High School in 1957, in this file photo. As the issue of making an official apology for the evils of slavery has recently come under discussion in Arkansas, Beebe has raised some eyebrows by suggesting he’s unsure such an apology is required, because his state has “moved past that.” (AP photo/Mike Wintroath)

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