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MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2007

Apology for slavery good for business?
Racial issues, German industries coincide in Alabama

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — In Alabama, the recruitment of major German industries and the debate over symbolic racial issues keep coinciding.

In 1993, when Alabama was trying to recruit the Mercedes Benz assembly plant, then-Gov. Jim Folsom Jr. decided it would help Alabama’s image to stop flying the Confederate battle flag atop the state Capitol.

Now, as Alabama tries to recruit a ThyssenKrupp steel mill, the Legislature is considering resolutions apologizing for slavery.

Folsom is in a different state office today — serving as lieutenant governor and presiding officer of the state Senate. That’s where a resolution, expressing “profound regret” for slavery, got blocked from consideration two days last week.

Folsom said the timing of the recruitment efforts with the racial issues is interesting, but it’s just coincidence.

When Folsom replaced Guy Hunt as governor in 1993, he declined to appeal a court ruling against flying the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol dome.

Instead, he left the flag off the dome and created a display of four Confederate flags around the Confederate Monument on the north side of the Capitol.

None of the three governors since then have tinkered with Folsom’s work.

Folsom said several Alabama-based business groups didn’t want the Confederate battle flag on the Capitol dome because they thought it was hurting Alabama’s image and its ability to recruit industry.

“The flag was a much more visible image nationally because it focused on Alabama. The apology that some other Southern states have done is more subliminal,” Folsom said in an interview.

A few months after Folsom’s decision, Mercedes Benz picked Vance for Alabama’s first assembly plant and started the state on the road to becoming a major auto manufacturer.

With the apologies for slavery — enacted in recent weeks by the legislatures in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina — there has not been the same national attention, Folsom said.

Sen. Hank Sanders, who is sponsoring the apology resolution in the Senate, said the timing is interesting because he started to offer his resolution during the Legislature’s special session in February, when lawmakers were approving economic incentives to offer ThyssenKrupp AG, based in Duesseldorf, if it will build a $2.9 billion steel mill about 20 miles north of Mobile.

Sanders, D-Selma, said he decided to wait until the current regular session of the Legislature because he didn’t want to slow down passage of the incentive package, but he said his resolution did not stem from efforts to beat out Louisiana in competition for the steel mill.

Sanders, D-Selma, said his resolution was inspired by — and is largely copied from — Virginia’s apology. “I said the timing is right. We can do that,” he said.

Sanders’ resolution and a similar one sponsored by state Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, could come up for a vote when the Legislature returns from spring break on April 24 — one day after the official state holiday for Confederate Memorial Day.

Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, is a proponent of the apology resolutions and of ThyssenKrupp, which could generate many jobs for her constituents.

She said passage of an apology resolution would help Alabama’s image. But she warned that Alabama’s image will be hurt much more if the Legislature doesn’t pass the resolution.

“All this is going to do is gather us some more national negative headlines,” she said.

Charles Steele, a former state senator from Tuscaloosa who’s now national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, has the same view as Figures on the resolution, but Steele frames it from the perspective of a longtime business owner.

“This is good for business,” he said.

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

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