Making Amends for a Racist Past

In righting a wrong, there are words and there are deeds. As concerns the historic inhumane and unjust treatment of African-Americans, this week saw both.

In Philadelphia, Miss., jury selection began for the trial of a reputed Ku Klux Klansman accused in the high-profile killing there of three civil rights workers - one black and two white - in 1964. The three young men were registering black voters that summer and were investigating a church burning when they disappeared.

In Washington, meanwhile, the Senate passed a resolution apologizing for having refused to enact legislation against lynching. From the late 1800s until well into the 20th century, lynchings killed nearly 5,000 people, most of them blacks. Seven presidents urged antilynching legislation; 200 bills were introduced. Yet Old South senators blocked passage.

Often, actions speak louder than words. That seems to be the case for Ben Chaney, a brother of one of the slain civil rights workers, who plans to attend every day of the trial. "It's good to see that Mississippi is living in the 21st century," he says.

But a sincere apology can also go a long way. Anyone who's felt a deep pang of conscience knows the redeeming and healing value of an apology that springs from the heart - that expresses real remorse for one's own wrongdoing and is offered freely.

It's a little different for a nation or institution. People may feel they shouldn't be held accountable for the mistakes of others. And yet, they mustn't turn a blind eye to them. One has the sense that Germans today, for instance, understand the causes and horror of Hitler's Germany.

What's notable about the Senate resolution is that it seems to have had this same affect on at least one senator, Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana, who cosponsored the resolution with Virginia Republican George Allen.

"It has been an extremely emotional, educational experience for me," she said. "This was domestic terrorism," she concluded, "and the Senate is uniquely culpable" for failing to take steps to stop it.

Senator Landrieu was moved especially by a book sent to her and her colleagues by a civil rights group pushing for the apology. "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" depicts postcards taken at lynching scenes. It taught her, for instance, that lynchings were not secret killings, but often celebratory community events.

The Senate resolution is the first time a chamber of Congress has apologized for the nation's treatment of blacks. This is a welcome step as the nation continues to wrestle with racism and the divisions it leaves.

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