January 18th was Martin Luther King’s Birthday, or the national holiday celebrating it. Proposed by Rep. John Conyers shortly after King’s assassination in 1968, it would take nearly twenty years for official recognition to become law. Opposition to a national holiday in King’s honor was led by Senator Jesse Helms and supported by other relics of the Old White South. Ronald Reagan also opposed it. Support from trade unionists, liberal politicians, Stevie Wonder and other celebrities, and backed by six millions Americans who signed a petition in support of Martin Luther King Day finally won out and President Reagan reluctantly signed the veto-proof bill into law in 1986.
This January 18, 2007 the legacy of segregation and other institutionalized systems of oppression bit back. While many were celebrating Martin Luther King, Rep. Frank Hargrove (Republican) of Hanover County, Virginia gave an interview to the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Asked whether the state of Virginia should apologize for its historic involvement in slavery, Hargrove said there was no need for an apology and that African Americans should “just get over it.” His tactlessness was amplified when he argued that this was akin to asking the Jews to atone for ”killing Christ.”
As State Legislators erupted and Hargrove got even more riled up. African-American and Jewish delegates in Virginia were furious. Delegate Dwight Clinton Jones (Democrat-Richmond), chair of the Black Caucus, said that Hargrove’s encouraging blacks to ”get over” the legacy of slavery was “as if slavery was a birthday party that someone held last Saturday night.” Jones continued to argue that he wanted the legislature to formally apologize to those of his “ancestors” who were transported to this nation against their will “in order that this nation should be built upon their backs.” He also wanted to apologize to ”the civil rights generation… because of hatred that was put upon them.”
Delegate David Englin (Democrat Alexandria) responding to Hargrove’s anti-Semitism and holding up a picture of his seven year old son recalled “ As a young child I dealt with verbal and physical attacks from other children who believed that, as a Jew, I killed Christ…inserting that “When people of the respect and stature of a member of this body perpetuates that notion, it troubles me.”
But Hargrove, 79 and a member of the Legislature since 1982, wouldn’t budge. To Jones, he warned that “if we keep bringing this—slavery—“up, I think it will be harmful
to society…Nobody living today had anything to do with it.” He added that there was no need to apologize for the mistreatment of American Indians. To Englin, Hargrove paternally patted his arm and advised “I think your skin is a little too thin.”
Hargrove’s behavior follows a path laid by other Virginia politicians lately. Last year former U.S. Senator George Allen used the word ”macaca,” a racial slur to describe a young man of Indian descent. Then last month U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode complained that the first Muslim elected to Congress from Michigan was the only the beginning of a possible Muslim takeover of American society.
What is going on in Ole Virginny? Could it be that people whose benefited from slavery, segregation, the stealing of Indian lands and anti-Semitism are still holding on to the privileges that centuries of inequality that paved the way to their current positions? Do they feel threatened by voices representing historically silenced constituencies? Or is their good ol’ boy sensibility the result from a deep nostalgia for an “older, better way of life” that while enriching their ancestors shattered the lives of millions.
Virginia was not only the first state to establish slavery it has other legacies as well. In the 1920s the eugenics movement---a powerful political voice that advocated segregation, sterilization and anti-immigrant legislation to do away with those groups they considered ”unfit”— They chose Virginia to test what they described as a “model” sterilization law. The case went to the Supreme Court and was written into the nation’s fabric in 1927. It was the case that the Supreme Court’s Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in announcing the majority decision wrote the now infamous words.” Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” True to this inglorious history, Rep. Frank Hargrove opposed a bill to apologize to thousands of Virginians for undergoing involuntary sterilization decades ago, even though his own brother was sterilized.
Maybe Holmes was right but in a different sense, generations of good old boy prejudice is quite enough. And maybe, inadvertently Hargrove’s comments opened a door to understand the wounds of racism and religious intolerance, and to finally apologize for deep wounds that are still raw today.
Posted by Elizabeth Ewen
S&S thanks to Jamal Watson for bringing this story to our attention