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Compromise won't please all

Virginia, the first permanent English colony in North America, also had the dubious distinction of being the first to import African slaves.

Late last month, the state Legislature there took the lead again by unanimously adopting a resolution apologizing for Virginia's role in establishing slavery in the early 1600s and keeping human beings in bondage until the Civil War ended in 1865 with the defeat of the Confederacy.

Now, Georgia and a handful of other states are considering following suit by acknowledging their slaveholding pasts and expressing contrition.

But the slavery debate in Georgia is taking a different turn. If a slavery apology makes its way through the General Assembly this year - and time is growing short for that to happen - it probably would be linked to legislation recognizing April as Confederate Heritage and History Month in Georgia.

Strange bedfellows to say the least - apologizing for slavery while honoring the valor of Southerners who fought and died for the Confederacy. But the two causes are tied for both practical and philosophical reasons.

While it's too late in the legislative session to move forward with a stand-alone slavery apology, the Senate Rules Committee already has passed the Confederate heritage bill, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, whose hometown was the site of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles and the last major Southern victory.

That makes it eligible to hit the Senate floor Tuesday, when lawmakers return from a weeklong break for Day 30 of the 40-day session, the last day for bills to clear the legislative chamber where they originated or be declared dead for the year.

If Mullis' bill makes the Senate calendar Tuesday, supporters could add the slavery apology to it as an amendment and pass the whole package.

That would please Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, who began working behind the scenes with black Democrats more than a week ago to craft a slavery apology that could win support from other Republican leaders.

"I have been arguing for awhile privately that Georgia ought to be in the lead,'' Johnson said the day he made those negotiations public.

Beyond the time crunch, Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who has been working with Johnson on the issue, said combining slavery and Confederate heritage into a single measure also would allow Georgians to remember their past in a healthy, holistic way.

"We need to deal with all of Georgia history,'' he said. "When you do that, you speak to slavery and our past record of Jim Crow laws ... but (also) what Senator Mullis is trying to do. I understand where he's coming from. Let's see how we can all get on the same page.''

Virginia Sen. Henry Marsh, a black lawmaker from Richmond who pushed the slavery apology through the General Assembly there, said he understands Brooks' reasoning but doesn't agree with it.

"I think it would be preferable to have separate resolutions,'' he said. "Then, you don't get into having African-Americans supporting any part of the Confederacy.''

James Cobb, a history professor at the University of Georgia, had even stronger words for the concept of an omnibus history measure.

"You're going to have a resolution celebrating the Confederacy, which essentially was established to preserve slavery, combined with an apology for slavery,'' he said. "People are playing around with the past.''

If Johnson, Brooks and their allies can get a slavery/Confederate heritage resolution through the Senate, they then would face an uphill battle convincing House Republican leaders to go along.

House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, R-St. Simons Island, argued recently that the General Assembly's Republican majority already has done more in a little more than two years to atone for Georgia's racist past than Democrats did in more than a century of control. He pointed to the leadership role House GOP leaders played two years ago in joining Brooks to repeal a series of Jim Crow-era laws that were still on the books.

Beyond that, Keen and other Republicans question the wisdom of dwelling on history rather than looking to future challenges.

"The greatest way to repair the mistakes of past generations is to make sure they don't happen again,'' he said. "We're doing that.''

With such reservations being expressed by key lawmakers, Brooks is enough of a realist to know he and Johnson are facing long odds this year.

"It would be wonderful to do it in this session,'' Brooks said. "But I've been around long enough to know one session isn't the end of the world.''

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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