During a road trip with my dad in the summer of 1987, every state line we crossed -- from Louisiana to Mississippi to Arkansas -- seemed to trigger in him recollections of white terrorism, or black triumph over it, from his years growing up in the Old South.
One of our stops was McGehee, Ark., where his father, a dentist, was shot to death in 1930 for somehow offending a white man, a sheriff's deputy widely believed to have been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. When we learned that the man was in his nineties and still living in the town, we thought about paying him a visit.
Dad was willing. "I'd like to let him know that was a human being he killed," he told me. "Let him see that the son and the son of the son live on." I didn't see it that way. An "eye for an eye" is how I felt. Even if the man had changed and wanted to apologize, I didn't want to hear it.
I learned recently how little my feelings about such matters have changed since then. A resolution almost two weeks ago apologizing for the Senate's decades-long failure to make lynching black people a federal crime made me yawn. So did the manslaughter conviction of the Ku Klux Klan preacher 41 years after he participated in the premeditated murders of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss.
Let's face it: Justice delayed is justice denied.
My dad, on the other hand, sees things a bit differently. "It's never too late for justice," he said of the preacher's conviction. "Anyone who grew up when the law was not on your side if you were black has to see this as an indication of a new day."
Even James Cameron, 91, the only known survivor of a lynching attempt, said he never thought he'd see the day that the Senate would apologize for not outlawing lynching. "It's 100-something years too late, but I'm glad they're doing it," he told USA Today.
I can appreciate older African Americans who have endured some of America's worst overt racism and still made peace with the past. Maybe I will, too, someday. But not yet.
In the aftermath of the verdict in Philadelphia, Miss., I heard Ben Chaney, brother of slain civil rights worker James Chaney, say on National Public Radio that those searching for the three civil rights workers also had turned up the bodies of nine other missing black men. One belated conviction hardly evened the score, and neither would a resolution apologizing for the Senate's past be tacit approval of those lynched.
America was founded on genocide and slavery and built up over the centuries with forced labor, Black Codes, which imposed restrictions on freed slaves, and Jim Crow laws. And yet, there is not so much as a memorial to the Unknown African in this city that slavery built. In large measure because of America's inability -- and outright refusal -- to acknowledge this horrifically racist wrong and grieve for the wronged, the grievances of African Americans will continue to be passed from one generation to the next.
Apologies for past injustice mean nothing if the consequences of that injustice are allowed to stand. And, when billions of dollars are being spent on, say, "rebuilding" Iraq, while the lives of millions of poor Americans -- black and white -- continue to fall apart, the United States cannot convincingly lay claim to being either merciful or just.
Decades after state-sanctioned racial segregation ended in the United States, some argue that the nation's racial playing field is level -- or close to it. Critics of affirmative action point out that some African Americans are now among the wealthiest people in the country, conveniently ignoring the fact that millions more are the absolute poorest.
Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, one of 20 Republican senators who refused to sign the apology resolution, issued a statement last week saying that he had introduced his own resolution "recommitting the Senate to improving health, education and job opportunities for African Americans and all Americans."
Of course, "recommitting" implies that there was a commitment to begin with, which is unseemly given the fact that poverty and unemployment among blacks have been on the increase since Republicans most recently took control of the U.S. government.
It's a different day, Dad, to be sure. But not quite so new.