Virginia House Speaker A.L. Philpott, under pressure from state black leaders and legislators, apologized yesterday to black House of Delegates members for publicly referring to them as "boys."
In a telegram to the four black delegates and in a statement issued by his law office, Philpott said his words were "taken from context" and misinterpreted. "The use of the term 'boys' was used as a member of the team or a teammate, comparing the House of Delegates to a team," the speaker said.
"This is a term I have used regularly in reference to all fellow delegates as well as friends.
"It is regretted by me that in this instance some have inferred the term was used because of racial composition and I am sorry that it was so taken."
The apology, however, failed to quell the storm of criticism stirred up by Philpott's comment, which he made to a reporter at a political gathering in Southside Virginia several hours after he had met with the black legislators about complaints he was insensitive to black issues.
State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder--who has been considering running for the U.S. Senate in part because of his anger at Philpott's record on race relations--said the apology was "Pablum for babies and we're not babies.
"The question is not that he was misinterpreted but that you don't say those things," Wilder said. "It's the same as telling Polak jokes."
The apology -- telephoned by the 62-year-old speaker from a golfing vacation in North Carolina -- came after bitter attacks on Philpott, one of the state's leading Democrats. Betty Wright, the speaker's secretary at his Henry County law office, said the speaker seemed "surprised that the whole situation came up."
Following his meeting with the four black delegates in Richmond on Wednesday, Philpott told a reporter at the shad planking in Sussex County: "I've never had any problems with those boys. They understand the system."
Two of the delegates who had said Thursday they were shocked by the comment, said today they accepted the speaker's apology and were willing to drop the matter.
Del. Benjamin Lambert (D-Richmond) said the comment "definitely clears the air as far as we're concerned." Del. James Christian (D-Richmond) said he was "happy the response came as quickly as it did."
Christian expressed doubts, however, about Philpott's explanation that he regularly refers to House members as "boys." "I've been in the House four years and I've never been referred to in that manner in any way," said Christian, 63.
"Somebody usually does that with their cronies who they play golf or shoot pool with. But I don't have that kind of association with the speaker."
The furor over Philpott's comment has exacerbated a serious racial split within the Virginia Democratic Party that is endangering the party's chances in this November's election to fill the seat of retiring U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr.
In threatening to lead blacks out of the party this fall and run as an independent, Wilder has focused the brunt of his criticism on Philpott, a crusty, conservative legislative veteran from rural Virginia who came up through the ranks of the old Byrd organization.
Wilder -- the state's top black officeholder -- has blamed Philpott for the defeat of legislation introduced by blacks during the 1982 General Assembly, which killed measures ranging from a Martin Luther King holiday to a bill barring state tax exemptions for private, segregated schools.