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State Senate has heated debate but no vote on slavery apology

MONTGOMERY (AP) — A resolution offering the Alabama Legislature's apology for slavery sparked racially charged debate in the Senate on Thursday, but a vote on it will have to wait until after the lawmakers' spring break.

Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, tried to pass a resolution Thursday expressing the Legislature's "profound regret" for slavery, but Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, blocked Sanders' resolution by objecting to it consideration. After an emotional exchange between the senators, the Senate quickly adjourned for its spring recess. Sanders said he will try to pass the resolution again when lawmakers return April 24.

"I'm terribly disappointed because I thought Alabama was beyond debating this issue," Sanders said.

Bishop said his opposition had nothing to do with race.

"Nobody in this state can call me a racist," he said.

Bishop said Sanders' resolution and similar ones passed recently by the legislatures in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina appear to open the door for lawsuits seeking reparations.

"I think this whole thing is bigger than Alabama," Bishop said.

"That's crazy," Sanders responded.

Sanders, a partner in a large law firm, said his resolution makes no mention of reparations and the time limit for filing any lawsuits over the wrongs of slavery has long expired.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, introduced a similar resolution Thursday in the House, where it could also come up for a vote after spring break.

Moore said she offered the resolution because "slavery still has an impact on us."

The Senate's inaction Thursday drew criticism from Charles Steele, national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a former Alabama legislator.

"There needs to be a start in correcting the ills of the past. You must have a first step," he said in a phone interview from New York.

Steele said the SCLC is supporting the apology resolutions being considered by legislatures across the South, and he would like to see them lead to reparations through scholarships, job training and similar economic development initiatives.

Sen. Steve French, R-Birmingham, said the resolution will pass overwhelmingly if Sanders adds an amendment specifying that it has nothing to do with reparations.

Sanders' resolution recounts the history of slavery, including African families being ripped apart and slaves being brutalized, humiliated and raped.

The resolution says "an apology for centuries of brutal dehumanization and injustices cannot erase the past, but confession of wrongs can speed racial healing and reconciliation and help African-American and white citizens confront the ghosts of their collective pasts together."

When Bishop blocked Sanders' resolution Thursday, Sanders went to the Senate microphone to recall that when they were relatively new legislators in 1984, Bishop addressed him as "big boy" when they passed in the Capitol rotunda.

"I took it as a racial slur" because grown black men were often called 'boy' during segregation, Sanders said.

"You didn't even recognize that was a legacy of slavery," he said.

In an emotional exchange, the two acknowledged that they almost came to blows that day, but Bishop said he meant "big boy" only as a friendly greeting.

"I wasn't seeing black. If you see black and white that bad, you're the one that's got the problem, not me," Bishop said.

Bishop said he would prefer a statewide referendum on whether to apologize for slavery rather than leaving the issue to the Legislature.

In the House, Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said he favors Moore's resolution and expects to consider it shortly after returning from spring break.

House Minority Leader Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said he doesn't believe Republicans will try to block the resolution in the House, although he said he's not sure what the resolution accomplishes.

"I mean who thinks slavery was right? No one," Hubbard said.

Proponents said the resolutions represent today's legislators apologizing for actions of men who held the same offices many years ago and enacted laws supporting slavery and segregation.

"It just asks the state to apologize for the institution of slavery," Moore said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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