The House of Representatives is soon to debate a hate crimes bill, and its opponents will insist that tightening penalties for attacking people because they are black or Jewish or gay somehow creates a special privilege the rest of us do not enjoy.
Some lawmakers imagine it a special privilege not to be tied to a fence post, pistol-whipped and left to die.
I would ask any lawmakers not yet certain about the bill to turn to the records of the Georgia State House. On March 16, an implausible proponent of hate crimes legislation rose to speak both his mind and his heart in a moment that transcended politics.
When Georgia's hate crimes bill was about to be tabled into oblivion, Rep. Dan Ponder Jr. asked to address the assembly, where he spoke both the memory of his youth and the conscience of his manhood.
Nine of Ponder's great-great grandfathers fought for the Confederacy. Several owned slaves. He had not one ancestor born north of the Mason-Dixon Line. His bona fides firmly established, he told the story of the family employee who raised him.
Her name was Mary Ward. She was black.
"She began working for my family before I was born," Ponder said. Her grandmother had raised Ponder's mother. The Ponder children called Mary "May-Mar." She traveled with the family on its vacations in Florida. She taught him to play ball. She read to him. She raised him as she would her own children.
"One day, when I was about 12 or 13, I was leaving for school. As I was walking out the door, she turned to kiss me goodbye. And for some reason, I turned my head. She stopped and looked at me with a look that absolutely burns in my memory right now and she said, 'You didn't kiss me because I'm black.'"
She was right. Young Dan Ponder denied it. He made his excuses, but he knew. Raised in a place and time when his own father insisted on paying his black employees the same as whites, but kept separate water fountains and eating tables in his factory cafeteria, Dan Ponder knew why he wasn't kissing this woman who loved him unconditionally and without artifice.
"I have lived with the shame and memory of my betrayal of Mary Ward's love for me," Ponder told his colleagues.
He remembered his shame the day he'd turned his face away from one who loved him as her own. He remembered two decades ago when he traveled back to Alabama to help bury May-Mar. He remembered it and promised himself someday, somehow, he would redeem his moment of dishonor.
So, on the morning of March 16, without telling his wife he planned to do it, Dan Ponder Jr., conservative Republican, stood in the well of the Georgia House and told the kind of story no politician is ever supposed to tell on himself.
"Hate is all around us," Ponder said. "And it takes shape and form in ways that are somehow so small that we don't even recognize them to begin with, until they somehow become acceptable to us."
The bill, he acknowledged, might be a legal futility. Ponder is not a lawyer. But this was bigger than law.
"I don't really care that anyone is ever prosecuted under this bill," Ponder said. "But I do care that we take this moment, this time in history, to say that we are going to send a message."
Ponder's colleagues rushed the hate crimes bill out of cold storage and passed it.
Weary of spending days away from home, Dan Ponder Jr. leaves the Georgia Legislature this year. His legacy is one speech. Sometimes, that's enough.
I called him to ask about his story and how many of us, in the recesses of our minds, recall some epiphany that we are carrying hatreds that have somehow crept up on us.
"I think everybody's got a story," he said. "There probably were half a dozen representatives in Georgia who were there and fully expected to vote against the bill and then told me their stories."
Now, members of his own party are lining up in Washington to oppose a federal bill. Ponder can only ask this much of them:
"Remember that these victims are not statistics. They grew up next to them. It's about the right thing to do. It's about people."
Dennis Roddy is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist.
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