Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Congressman Tony Hall wants America to apologize for slavery

June 29, 1997

By Jonathan Tilove

c. Newhouse News Service

DAYTON, Ohio _ God works in mysterious ways.

No sooner had President Clinton launched his yearlong initiative on race, than the nation was plunged headlong, thanks to Tony Hall, into a debate about whether it was time to apologize for slavery.

Tony who?

Tony Hall, a mild-mannered, middle-aged, moderately liberal, white, born-again Christian, 10-term congressman who is a household name nowhere but in and around this most middle-American of cities. And yet Hall, without so much as a press conference, managed to do with a simple 28-word resolution what Clinton in his much-heralded 5,200-word speech could not _ reframe the American debate about race.

Hall’s proposal has been ridiculed by some leading voices _ both on the left and right, black and white _ as a diversionary exercise in empty symbolism.

But it has already opened the door to a potentially more serious debate about reparations than at any time since the nation reneged on its illusory promise of 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves at the end of the Civil War.

A recent ABC News-Nightline poll showed that two-thirds of blacks favored the apology and two-thirds of whites opposed it.

As some white conservative congressmen who quickly dismissed the idea will likely find out, the spiritual journey that led Hall to call for the apology parallels a flourishing movement of evangelical white Christians, many of them political conservatives, who consider repenting for historic sins of racism anything but an empty exercise. After all, Jesus died for their sins.

Already, Hall’s resolution, co-sponsored by 17 other House members, has won the backing of leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals, the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Christian Coalition.

A year ago January, Hall began to wonder if there had ever been some official U.S. apology to black Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors. He researched it. He had the Library of Congress research it. They could find nothing.

“We never said we’re sorry,” says Hall. “It’s a wound, an open, festering thing that won’t go away.”

Hall says the apology is not a call for reparations. But he is not prejudging that issue.

“This is only a beginning,” says Hall.

Conservatives, like columnist Tony Snow, lambast it as a guilty liberal’s attempt to “rig the political debate about racial reconciliation” and “send us hurtling into a new version of Reconstruction.” And the liberal Harvard law professor Christopher Edley Jr., who Clinton has named a special consultant to his race initiative, derides it as “cynical and symbolic.”

In the end, the test of any apology is the sincerity with which it is delivered, and there is no better place to test that, or, reputedly, most anything else, than Dayton.

Much of modern American life was born in Dayton _ the cash register, the airplane, the automatic starter for cars, the pop top. Demographically, it is considered a pitch-perfect national political bellwether, and an ideal test market for new products or ideas. When McDonalds tried pizza, Dayton said “no.”

But, in its relationship with its congressman, Ohio’s Third District seems hopelessly out of touch with the national zeitgeist. It is seriously lacking in cynicism.

“He has compassion, it just goes and goes and goes,” says Ernestine Roberts, a member of Mt. Enon Baptist Church, where Hall has just quietly sat through Sunday school on his first weekend return since his resolution caught fire.

“He just cares,” says the Rev. John F. Cunningham, pastor of Mt. Enon, situated, as he puts it, “in the heart of the ghetto” on the mostly black west side of Dayton, a city as starkly segregated as any.

Spying the congressman from the pulpit, Cunningham rings out a greeting. “Keep on keeping on,” he says. “We love you.”

At Sunday services, Cunningham reads aloud a letter he has just received from the Rev. Kenneth Mahanes, the pastor of the mostly white Far Hills Baptist Church in the very white suburb of Kettering. Inspired by Hall’s example, Mahanes builds upon the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of original sin on the issue of slavery of two years past, with a personal apology to Cunningham’s church on behalf of himself and the members of his church.

“I really love Tony,” says Mahanes, describing the slavery apology as typical. “Tony means it. It is just so in character.” But not everyone in Dayton thinks Hall’s motives are pure.

Matthew Anderson, a 30-year-old painter and art teacher, who is white, thinks no good can come from looking backward. He figures it’s a play for black voters, who represent 18 percent of the district’s electorate.

Meanwhile, Jesse A. Walker Jr., a black handyman, thinks the apology is a distraction. “I want my 40 acres and a mule,” says Walker.

But for the most part folks here express a familiar pride.

One after another, many of Hall’s constituents sound like they are living in some 1960s TV drama, “That’s Tony,” in which a crusading congressman goes to Washington, doing good, against the odds, week after week.

The most remarkable episode occurred back in 1993 when Hall went on a 22-day water-only fast to protest his own party’s decision to eliminate the Select Committee on Hunger he chaired.

“I really thought it would be the end of my career,” says Hall. But he says he had seen too many people in Ethiopia die of hunger on a single day for that to matter.

Hall’s fast ended in triumph with a pledge of $100 million to fight hunger from the World Bank. And it did mark the end of his career as a conventional politician.

Exempt from the draft because of a college football injury, Hall served two years in the Peace Corps in Thailand during the height of the Vietnam War.

The son of a Republican businessman who was Dayton’s mayor, Hall became a Democrat. He was raised nominally Christian but says his father wanted to hear no talk of religion in the home.

In the early 1980s and already in Congress, Hall heard Charles Colson, the convicted Watergate heavy turned Christian evangelist, speak about his religious conversion at a prayer breakfast.

“Something resonated,” says Hall, though it was more than another year before he committed himself to Jesus.

For more than a decade since, he has held a prayer breakfast every Wednesday morning in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. library in Washington, inspired by three black men, all now dead, whom he considered friends and mentors.

Born again, Hall also reversed his previously uncomfortable support for abortion rights.

Carol Fennelly, the longtime colleague and companion of Mitch Snyder, the late Washington crusader for the homeless, says Hall is a rare figure on Capitol Hill.

“Tony has a consistent life ethic,” says Fennelly, now spokeswoman for Call to Renewal, a progressive Christian coalition. “He opposes war, he opposes hunger, he opposes abortion. He is entirely consistent in all of his life.”

Craig Horn, a pediatrician who lives in a white community north of Dayton, is devoted to a weekly interracial meeting of Promise Keepers, a Christian men’s group that stresses racial reconciliation. He has come to realize, he says, that his privileged life has come at the expense of blacks. Beyond “knitting” his life with these other men, he is trying to figure out ways to right that wrong.

“It’s openly known in this city, Tony Hall loves Christ,” says Bob Gatliff, who is black and hosts the weekly gathering at his west side home. “I don’t think it was any coincidence that God placed it on his heart to lead this.”

“It’s kind of a heart thing for me,” says Hall, adding he didn’t want colleagues to co-sponsor the resolution of apology if they had to think about it too long.

Last year Hall’s son, Matt, died at the age of 15 after a four-year battle with leukemia, and there seems to be a sort of existential cast to his politics these days.

Beyond the apology, he says, “I don’t have a plan. I don’t know enough about the issue to have a plan.”

But, he says, “We’ve got to get people thinking about something they never thought much about and that’s slavery.”

Written by jonathantilove

July 23, 2022 at 11:26 pm

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