By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006
FARMVILLE, Va., April 30 -- On a weekend pilgrimage to this town that was once the center of massive resistance to desegregation, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) said he believes a congressional resolution expressing remorse for slavery would be a "powerful, worthy" idea.
Allen, who is running for reelection while considering a 2008 presidential bid, was in Farmville over the weekend as part of a racial reconciliation trip organized by the bipartisan Faith and Politics Institute. Also participating in the pilgrimage was Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader in the civil rights movement. Allen pledged to work with Lewis to build support among colleagues and the public for the resolution.
"You can genuinely say that John Lewis and I began discussions right here and now on it, in determining how's the best way to proceed on it," he said. Lewis said he welcomes Allen's partnership on a fight for a congressional apology. "It would liberate the very soul of the nation," he said.
Some black leaders have maintained for years that the nation should formally apologize for its slave-owning past, and some have campaigned for reparations payments to the descendants of slaves. Opposition has been strong, in Congress and in national polls.
This weekend's event, which explored civil rights history, was the third such trip to sites across the country in which Allen has participated. He said he was moved to hear firsthand from town residents about the pain caused by segregation in Farmville and in surrounding Prince Edward County. From 1959 to 1964, white officials in this southern Virginia community closed public schools rather than abide by desegregation rulings. A private school was founded for white students, who received state tuition grants. Some black children were sent to live with family or strangers elsewhere. Others didn't go to school.
Allen's comments on a slavery resolution came in response to a challenge from Ken Woodley, the editor of a local newspaper that once trumpeted segregation and now champions racial healing. Woodley helped lead a 2004 effort to create a scholarship program for those denied education, now adults. He told Allen that a similar effort was needed nationally to apologize for the harm caused by slavery and then to pump money into education, health care and economic development for African Americans.
Allen said fellow members of Congress would need much persuading before voting on such a resolution. "You don't just introduce something such as this without people understanding and making sure the words are right," he said. "Whether the words are 'regret' or 'apology' or some other words, phraseology is important."
He said he does not advocate reparations payments for African Americans but has for several years been pushing legislation to provide money to upgrade technology at historically black colleges. He called that an "absolute perfect convergence of what we ought to do as a country" to help erase the legacy of separate and unequal schools.
Allen's comments were notable because some black leaders and political opponents have long accused him of racial insensitivities. Before he ran for governor in 1993, he kept a Confederate flag in a cabin near his Charlottesville home, part of a collection of flags, he has said. He once displayed a noose in his law office, which he said was part of a homage to the West. And he stirred controversy as governor by issuing a proclamation noting the South's celebration of Confederate History Month in April, without mentioning slavery.
The history is well known to many Virginians, but a presidential run would introduce it to a national audience. Just this week, the New Republic magazine ran a story recounting the anecdotes and publishing Allen's high school yearbook photo from California. In it, he is wearing a Confederate flag pin on his lapel.
Allen spent the weekend in Farmville talking about the need to stand up against racism and his efforts to reach out. That includes his college bill and a Senate resolution he sponsored last year that apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws. He also discussed how much he has learned from the trips with Lewis, about cruelty and inhumanity, as well as the power of forgiveness.
Allen said he has gotten a lesson in the importance of symbols, including the Confederate flag. "I have learned over time what that flag means," he said. "To me, it didn't mean what it means to some people. . . . I looked at it more as anti-establishment, renegade, rebelliousness. But I have learned . . . when you look at how that flag has been appropriated by hate groups. I don't ever want to hurt people or in any way make them feel bad about one thing or another."
Allen's political opponents continue to question his commitment to diversity and say his partnership with Lewis is an attempt to repackage himself in preparation for the national stage.
Taylor West, a spokeswoman for former technology lobbyist Harris Miller, one of two Democrats seeking to replace Allen in the Senate, said that Allen's record is "troubling" and that recent comments "carry the tone of reinvention."
Kristian Denny Todd, a spokesman for former Navy secretary James Webb, the other Democrat vying to challenge Allen, said there are questions about Allen's record but praised him for reaching out to Lewis. "I would like to think that George Allen's actions in this regard are not purely political. There's too much at stake," she said.
Skip Griffin, 57, whose father was a minister in Farmville and led the fight to integrate schools, said Allen's efforts appeared real to him. He said African Americans could respond well to a message of family and faith from a conservative who also speaks to racial healing.
"I'm old enough to know that people can change," he said.
People in Farmville say Prince Edward County itself is a symbol of the changes time can bring.
More than 50 years after the Supreme Court's desegregation decision in the Brown case, the public schools are 60 percent black and 40 percent white. Black people hold seats on the Board of Supervisors and the county school board. In recent years, like a dam breaking, the community that was silent for years about its efforts to keep black children out of school has started to highlight that history. Residents said they hoped Allen and Lewis, who arrived in town this weekend with three other congressmen aboard a bus escorted by U.S. Capitol Police, will bring their stories back to Washington. Both promised to do so.