Words Hurtful, but Also Helpful, To Slavery Apology's Advocates

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is Frank Hargrove a relic, a Virginia lawmaker who turns 80 next week and has gone a bit soft in the head? Or is he the kind of politician voters keep electing because, as the ads for Maryland's William Donald Schaefer used to say, "He says what you think"?

This week, Hargrove, a Republican delegate from Hanover County, north of Richmond, said some things we'd like to think no one believes anymore. But, of course, some people do believe that blacks "should get over" slavery and that it might make sense "to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ." In an interview with the Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Hargrove explained his opposition to an official apology for slavery by suggesting that it's time for blacks to move on. Goodness, he said, if Virginia expressed regret over slavery, next thing you know, people would insist that Jews atone for killing Jesus.

When his comments -- made, of all times, on Martin Luther King Day -- exploded in his face, causing black and Jewish members of the House of Delegates to register their dismay and pain, Hargrove opened a can of gasoline and poured it on:

Slavery, he said on the House floor in Richmond, "was a horrible institution. On the other hand, not a soul in this legislature had anything to do with slavery."

There is the glimmering of a legitimate argument here; it is wrong to saddle living generations with guilt for evil committed by their ancestors. But that doesn't mean it's wrong for any generation, no matter how far removed from misdeeds, to state that what once seemed acceptable no longer comports with our code of behavior.

Hargrove warned that "if we keep bringing this"-- slavery -- "up, I think this is harmful to society." Then he opined that there's no need for this country to apologize to Indians for their mistreatment.

He wasn't finished. When Del. David Englin, a Democrat from Alexandria, held up a photo of his 7-year-old son so his colleagues could see the face of a Jewish boy who, because of Hargrove's comment about Christ-killers, is now "that much more likely to be verbally attacked or physically attacked," Hargrove displayed all the empathy of a doorknob:

"I didn't know you were Jewish," the delegate said, patting Englin's arm. "And I really don't care." And this about Englin's response to the Christ-killer remark: "I think your skin was a little too thin." This brought gasps even from Hargrove's Republican colleagues.

Hargrove is a nice guy, really. He's the kind of politician every legislature needs, because he says what's on his mind, and he's willing to discard orthodoxies. A few years ago, I celebrated Hargrove for breaking with his Republican colleagues and his own past by deciding he could no longer support the death penalty; the possibility of executing the wrong man was just too great. This epiphany came two decades after Hargrove sought, quite seriously, to have Virginia adopt public hangings.

What makes state legislatures, and especially Virginia's, so much more interesting than Congress is that many of the people we elect to state positions actually hold jobs in other fields, are not millionaires and don't measure their every word as if it might determine whether they one day become president.

In our gotcha society, comments like Hargrove's are easy to jump on because they're ignorant and, well, wrong. Legislators who were appalled by Hargrove's remarks delivered moving responses: Del. Donald McEachin, a Democrat from Richmond and sponsor of the slavery apology resolution, said that when he looks into the eyes of his 102-year-old grandmother, whose parents were slaves, "quite frankly, it's hard to get over it."

Callousness is nothing new for Hargrove. Last year, amid growing hysteria about illegal immigration, Hargrove proposed to ban illegals from state colleges, even if they could pay out-of-state tuition rates. He also opposed an official apology to mentally retarded Virginians who were forcibly sterilized by the state decades ago. Hargrove opposed the apology even though his own brother was sterilized; the delegate said it was wrong to atone for something that many, including his parents, believed was right at the time.

This is obviously a guy who sees the world in absolutes, even if he did come, late in life, to see the death penalty as a gray area.

But for all the furor, absolutists can help crystallize arguments and even bring people together. Those who stood up this week to explain what was wrong with Hargrove's words opened some eyes in Richmond; some legislators saw that the wounds of slavery and of religious intolerance are somehow still raw. Virginia's lawmakers may decide not to atone for slavery, but the apology has better prospects than ever before -- thanks to Frank Hargrove.

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