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 powerful.

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.