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Riley says he would sign slavery apology

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — If the Alabama Legislature passes state Sen. Hank Sanders’ resolution apologizing for slavery, Gov. Bob Riley leaves no doubt about what he will do.

“If they send me a resolution to sign, I’ll sign it in a heartbeat and send it back,” Riley said.

D’Linell Finley, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery, said Riley’s emphatic position is significant.

“The fact you have a white Southern governor — a conservative Republican governor by the way — acknowledging the past and bringing about some reconciliation is significant. It expresses how far we have comes as a state and a nation,” Finley said.

The Legislature returns from its spring break Tuesday — one day after the official state holiday for Confederate Memorial Day — and Sanders, D-Selma, hopes to bring back up for debate his resolution expressing “profound regret” for slavery.

Sanders has brought up the resolution twice before, but run into stalling tactics from Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, who said the resolution could lead to suits for reparations.

Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, has introduced a separate apology resolution in the House, but it has not yet come up for debate.

If the Legislature passes a resolution, it will need the governor’s signature to become official.

Governor’s position clear

Sometimes when reporters ask Riley about issues pending in the Legislature, he says he needs to see the final version approved by the Legislature before saying whether he will sign it or veto it. But Riley already had his mind made up when reporters asked about Sanders’ resolution.

His position, he said, is “the same thing it’s always been when we get into this debate.”

In 2004, Riley unsuccessfully pushed a constitutional amendment to remove segregation-era language from Alabama’s constitution. The constitutional amendment lost by about one-tenth of a percent after his future opponent for governor, Roy Moore, opposed it.

Also in 2004, Riley formed the Black Belt Commission to try to bring development to a poor, predominantly black region of the state and named Sanders co-chairman.

In 2006, Riley signed legislation to grant pardons to Rosa Parks and many others arrested for civil disobedience during civil rights protests.

Also in 2006, Riley campaigned for re-election in predominantly black areas that are not normally on the speaking schedules of Republican candidates. He even got Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona to accompany him to the Black Belt.

Symbolic gesture

William Stewart, a political scientist at The University of Alabama and a longtime observer of Alabama politics, said Sanders’ resolution carries great symbolism.

“Symbols are important in politics. I don’t know if Governor Riley has any future political ambitions, but this is an
issue you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of,” Stewart said.

Jess Brown, a political scientist at Athens State University, said some Southern politicians who have had ambitions outside their own states have enhanced their images by taking symbolic positions on racial issues. He cited Jimmy Carter posting a picture of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Georgia Capitol when Carter was governor.

If Riley has any ambitions beyond governor, he “doesn’t want to be seen in George Wallace’s image,” Brown said.

Business component

Aside from politics, the apology resolutions have a business component.

If the Legislature or Riley were to kill the resolution, other Southern states competing with Alabama for new industries would use the issue to portray Alabama as backward and prejudiced, Stewart said.

Since February, legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland have approved slavery apologizes. Sanders’ resolution is largely copied from Virginia’s.

Finley said the resolutions go “a long way toward reconciliation,” but they raise an even bigger question: Will the states follow up by addressing areas where gaps remain between blacks and whites, including education and health care?

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

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