Charleston Apologizes (copy)

Charleston City Council member William Dudley Gregorie raises his arms after council approved a resolution Tuesday night formally apologizing for the city's role in slavery. File/Brad Nettles/Staff


When I heard earlier this month that Charleston City Council would weigh a resolution apologizing for the city’s role in the atrocity of slavery, I couldn’t think of any proposal less controversial. Apparently I was deeply wrong.

The feedback we got on our editorial supporting the resolution was shocking.

“The notion that slavery, which ended in 1865, is somehow relevant to the condition of African Americans in Charleston in 2018 is insulting to many African Americans,” wrote one reader.

“Ridiculous apologizing for something our ancestors did,” wrote another.

“I’ll never apologize to you,” wrote another.

Wow. Of course, I’ve written before on these pages to ignore mean-spirited negativity. But I figured that the discussion among City Council members at the meeting on Tuesday would be more reasonable. I was wrong again.

“I can’t help but think about the incredible survivors and families of the Mother Emanuel massacre that went to the bond hearing and inspired us all with their forgiveness to a very, very evil person,” said Councilman Bill Moody. “For us to apologize for this evil would horribly demean the incredible act of love that those people displayed that day.”

“The majority of Charlestonians that I talked to from personal experiences were not willing to apologize for something that they did not take a part in,” said Councilman Harry Griffin.

“I have trouble apologizing for the rule of law as it existed at that time,” said Councilman Marvin Wagner in an interview with Post and Courier reporter Abigail Darlington later in the week. “It shouldn’t have been, but it was, and it had to be to build the country at that point in time.”

The final vote was 7-5 in favor of passage. Thank goodness the resolution passed. But five sitting council members felt it unnecessary or unproductive to apologize for Charleston’s role in one of the greatest crimes against humanity ever perpetrated.

That shows how much work is left to do.

To be sure, a document stating an apology does nothing in and of itself. Charleston’s black community woke up on Wednesday in essentially the same conditions as it went to bed on Tuesday. We have not magically resolved disparities that metastasized over centuries.

It’s worth noting that both Mr. Moody and Mr. Griffin suggested that actions would speak louder than words. But actions and words are not mutually exclusive.

On Tuesday, our city rightly acknowledged that many of the racial disparities that exist today are echoes of our past. No, none of us owned slaves, though the city in which we live and work was built on their backs. The City Hall in which Tuesday’s vote took place was put together stone by stone in large part by slave labor. Slavery may have ended generations ago, but its noxious effects linger all too powerfully.

That does not mean that Charleston’s black residents are victims. On the contrary, many have overcome hardships and lived through indignities that are difficult to imagine for those of us who were born white, and especially into privileged families. And the testimonies of dozens of city residents who spoke on Tuesday bear witness to a fierce and indomitable drive to achieve and persevere. That strength makes our city stronger.

Nor does an apology mean that any of us is personally guilty of wrongdoing. Although I would hope that we would take it as an acknowledgment that all of us can do better to right the wrongs of the past and be better to our neighbors.

An apology was the least we can offer. But most of us as children learned that apologies are useless without changing the behavior that led to the apology in the first place.

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The resolution passed on Tuesday calls for the creation of a city Office on Racial Reconciliation. It ought to be more than just a symbolic gesture. There are plenty of concrete actions we need to take.

Let’s speed the construction of affordable housing to mitigate the impact of gentrification on longstanding black neighborhoods.

Let’s improve access to banking and help black families get business loans and mortgages so that more Charleston residents have an equitable opportunity to build better lives.

Let’s invest in better public schools, pay our best teachers better salaries and give black students a better opportunity to succeed academically.

Let’s end disparities in policing and incarceration that tear apart black families.

Let’s expand affordable medical care.

Let’s build more effective mass transit and safer infrastructure for bicyclists and pedestrians.

None of these are new suggestions. We have talked about them for decades. Like Tuesday’s resolution, they exist as bullet points and action items on pieces of paper in countless studies and plans and proposals. But for too long, Charleston’s best intentions have sat on shelves.

It’s the right thing to do to apologize for the evils of the past. We are the ones who must accept responsibility for the actions of the present.

Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.

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