Time to apologize for eugenics program

Cynthia Tucker

Published on: 02/07/07

It's hard to imagine what otherwise decent people could have been 
thinking when they decided they should play God. It's difficult to 
understand the sentiments of judges, physicians and lawmakers who 
thought they were being progressive when they ordered the 
sterilizations of thousands of Georgians - mostly those who were poor 
or mentally handicapped or otherwise vulnerable to the whims of the 

As Georgia, like so many other states, was swept up in the eugenics 
movement, the Legislature passed a law in 1937 allowing involuntary 
sterilizations. On Sunday, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter 
Gayle White revealed details of that unsettling crusade, during which 
an estimated 3,300 Georgians, some school-aged children, were 
forcibly sterilized. The eugenics movement was intended to purge the 
gene pool - especially the white race - of inferior stock, thereby 
producing a superior race. The Nazis were big fans of eugenics.

Now, the Georgia Legislature is considering a resolution that would 
apologize for the state's actions; the legislation expresses 
"profound regret." Several other states, including California, 
Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, have already apologized 
for their sterilization campaigns.

The Georgia General Assembly should do the same. And quickly. This is 
not a matter that merits endless debate or countless amendments. The 
state was wrong. Its elected representatives should just say so.

An official apology wouldn't right the wrongs of eugenics, but it 
would help to illuminate an unfortunate period in our history. And an 
acknowledgement of state-mandated injustice would also remind us of 
the burden we all bear when the state (or the nation) acts unfairly 
in our name.

In a democratic republic, after all, every law passed by a state 
legislature or by Congress, every military action initiated by the 
president, every sentence handed down by a judge is done in the name 
of the citizens. Every just and righteous act of government- every 
foreign relief effort, every rescue mission, every war of liberation 
- belongs to its citizens. So does every unjust act - every misguided 
invasion, every innocent person sentenced to death row, every 
law-abiding foreigner seized and imprisoned in an undisclosed 
location. To be a patriot is to be so devoted to your country that 
you take responsibility for its shortcomings, just as you take pride 
in its accomplishments.

Over the past several years, I've been surprised by the ferocity of 
the debate that has surrounded proposals of official apologies for 
official misdeeds, including slavery. What is it about an apology 
that draws such controversy? On an blog about the proposed 
apology for forced sterilizations, one poster wrote: "Do we have to 
apologize for everything that has happened in the past? Isn't 
amending the laws to change the wrong enough apology?"

It seems that the mere act of contrition bruises the human psyche, so 
much so that many of us resist it, no matter what the circumstances. 
Contrition requires courage. But there is no dishonor in apologizing 
for an injustice that was done in your name. The dishonor may lie in 
not apologizing.

Nor does it matter that most of those who perpetrated the act - like 
most of the victims - are long dead. Georgia's current citizens 
benefit from the wise and just actions of its past leaders. We count 
ourselves lucky for the four years of leadership provided by Gov. 
Ellis Arnall, whose progressive policies separated this state from 
its backwater neighbors, Alabama and Mississippi. As governor from 
1943-47, Arnall lowered the voting age to 18, reformed the state's 
prison system and got rid of the Jim Crow poll tax. He also led the 
effort to restore accreditation to the state's universities, after 
the Talmadge gang had marred them with rightwing politics.

But it was also Arnall who, as a young state senator, sponsored a 
bill to permit involuntary sterilizations in 1935. (Though history 
has not been as kind to former Gov. Eugene Talmadge as it has to 
Arnall, it was Talmadge who vetoed the bill when it passed the 
Legislature. The next governor, E.D. Rivers, signed it into law.) As 
we enjoy Arnall's progressive legacy, we must also own his mistakes.

On behalf of all its citizens, Georgia should apologize.

* Cynthia Tucker is the editorial page editor. Her column appears 
Wednesdays and Sundays.