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City Council, June 19

City apologizes for role in support of slavery
An intimidating meeting
Marc Knapp

Should the City apologize for its past actions is support of slavery? Its support of course ended with the civil war some 153 years ago. But the issue packed the City chamber with citizens, predominantly black. All that chose to speak in Citizens Participation were in favor of the resolution to apologize. But Council was divided. Council approved the resolution though 5 of the 12 members present were opposed. Press Download file to see text.

It would have been a brave member of the public to rise in opposition to the resolution. I spoke of issues with traffic lights and drainage but also noted that if we looked well back in history, probably all of us would have slavery in our ancestry. Most of theThe citizens in attendance were clearly in favor of the resolution and had little time for the decorum of Council. The Mayor frequently called for order and asked attendees to not applause. He was largely ignored. We can only speculate as to the reaction to a speaker in opposition.

We did not count the number of speakers but there were nearly 70 names on the sign-in sheets when we arrived. Probably a lesser number spoke, but they included representatives of churches and charities, and many were white. Most spoke of the ills of slavery, and the suffering of slaves. And they were impassioned speeches. They noted the important role the City played in the history of slavery. No apology had ever been made by the City, they said, and it should have. They called for “repentance” and a “time for healing”. Many speakers went further and referred to injustices and inequalities that persisted and which needed to be addressed. There was a need for more affordable housing and economic opportunities for black people. Changes were needed to the system of justice. And then there were the few who called for reparations to make black folk economically whole.

Council member Gregorie was the first to speak when the resolution came to Council for a vote. He played the leading role in its creation and was part of the Council committee which wrote it. He too spoke of the past sins of the City. The Resolution was not about individual apology, but for the City. He emphasized that he did not know how his fellow Council members would vote, but whatever way, they were not racists. This point was made emphatically by Council member Seekings later in the discussion and who voted for the resolution.

Council member Moody spoke next and but his speech was confusing to us. It was conciliatory but not completely. He ultimately voted against the resolution.

Council member Shahid and the Mayor followed, each speaking in favor of the resolution. The Mayor’s speech was long, and big on facts relating to injustices. He spoke of the taxes and fees that the City extracted from traders and owners of slaves, and the indignities and suffering. It was also an impassioned speech, accompanied by tears.

Then there were the speeches by Council members Waring and Griffin. Both opposed the resolution but for different reasons.

Council member Waring thought the resolution was a good start. But it was too hollow (Our words) It needed more, in particular, economic empowerment. He suggested that the present rules relating to overturning a Planning Commission decision by Council was detrimental to minorities and needed to be changed. He thought financial hardship should be a legitimate reason for a zoning changes and that much more be done to support affordable housing and education. None of these things were possible without economic empowerment. Despite his declaration to vote against the resolution, he was applauded by attendees.

Council member Griffin gets our applause for courage. He is new to Council and fully 23 years of age. Most of us would be daunted to vote no in last night’s political atmosphere. But he declared his opposition to the resolution and despite the persistent audible hostility from attendees, persevered with his speech. He spoke of the need to look forward, the inability to change history, the important issues that needed to be addressed by Council and not in a racial way. He also said that his constituents opposed the resolution. Why should they apologize for something they had nothing to do with? The Citizens in attendance and who spoke for the resolution did not represent the majority of the City’s population, he said.

Council member Seekings confessed to being confused over the issue but voted for the resolution. He described the comments and discussion as “high political theater”. He thought some of the issues raised by Council member Waring had nothing to do with race, in particular his support for maintaining a super majority vote to overturn a Planning Commission decision. We should note that Council members Lewis, Mitchell and Jackson spoke in favor of the resolution. Council members Wagner and Shealy did not speak to the issue and voted against it. Council member White was absent.

For the record, we fall in line behind Council member Griffin. Nobody is condoning what happened in the past. It was bad but “the finger has writ and moves on”. We would ask, who is apologizing to whom? We’d guess that the majority of the City’s citizens today were born in the North or in other countries, or their antecedents came to the South after the Civil war. They had no connection to Charleston 150 years ago. And if the City is apologizing to black folk, and considering the importance of Charleston to the slave trade, it is effectively apologizing to African Americans everywhere. And we agree with Council member Seekings, last night was “pure political theater". Let’s focus on real issues and be not diverted by racial issues. The latter should be addressed and will be as Council members Seekings and Waring suggested if citizens speak and engage Council. We would also add that such resolutions as that considered last night may help the healing of the black community, but it may be derided by others.