Creation Of Holocaust Commission Stirs Debate On Miss. Racial Past

A bill creating a Mississippi Holocaust Commission prompted Senate debate Wednesday over how the state should acknowledge its own troubled racial history.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said he has filed bills the past six years to create a South African-style Truth Commission to examine Mississippi's history of slavery, lynchings and discrimination. Those bills have died without ever reaching the Senate floor for discussion.

A bill to create a state Holocaust Commission was adopted this year - the first time it was filed.

"I believe that before we deal with issues that occurred in Europe, as heinous and atrocious as they are... I think it's unconscionable that we don't try to get our own house together first,'' Horhn said.

Horhn and other black lawmakers offered two amendments to create groups to examine Mississippi's past. That put some senators in a bind because a bill signing for the Holocaust Commission was already been planned for later in the day, with out-of-state dignitaries at the Capitol for the ceremony.

If the Senate had passed amendments, the bill would have gone back to the House.

At the request of other lawmakers who pledged to work with them next year, the black senators withdrew the amendments.

At the signing ceremony, Gov. Haley Barbour said the bill "makes a very important statement about the absolute intolerance that we have for intolerance.''

The commission will not receive state funding, but it can use private grants to conduct educational programs and possibly to build a museum in the state. No site has been chosen.

Shirley Shipman Johnson of Poplarville lobbied lawmakers to create a state Holocaust Commission.

She has written a book about her father's experience as a 23-year-old U.S. Army soldier who helped liberate a concentration camp at Mauthausen, Austria. A documentary is being made about Johnson and her father's story.

Johnson said she was sympathetic to black lawmakers who want a commission to examine Mississippi's past.

"I had heart for them. I understand exactly where they were coming from,'' she said.

Shmuel Ben-Shmuel, the Atlanta-based Consul General of Israel, attended the bill-signing ceremony and said a Mississippi Holocaust Commission can teach tolerance of different races and religions.

"The survivors of the Holocaust are getting older,'' Ben-Shmuel said. "It's important to remember - especially now with the regrowth of anti-Semitism throughout the world with all kinds of revisionist historians.''

The bill is House Bill 1269.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)