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Senator’s Spokesman Says ‘Slave’ Remark Misinterpreted

November 14, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Montana Sen. Conrad Burns on Wednesday acknowledged ″a lack of sensitivity″ for saying he was going to an auction of ″slaves″ after last month’s Senate vote on the civil rights bill.

″I didn’t know at the time I had offended anyone,″ Burns, a Republican, said in a response to criticism by civil rights lobbyists who heard the remark.

The lobbyists said Burns made the comment to them as he entered an elevator off the Senate floor immediately after the vote.

″I was ... stunned. When it sunk in, I found it offensive,″ said Claudia Withers, a lawyer for the Women’s Legal Defense Fund who heard the remark.

Burns’ remark was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post, which said seven people had confirmed hearing it.

Press secretary Bryce Dustman said Burns was heading home after the vote to discuss with his son holding such an event to raise money for the youth’s church confirmation class.

″He was asked, ’Where are you going?‴ Dustman said. ″He said he was going home to talk about having a slave auction,″ an event in which bidders ″buy″ students to do chores.

″He was making reference to what is a very common term in Montana ... and in the Midwest, too,″ Dustman said.

In a prepared statement issued late Wednesday, Burns said:

″I can see that some people here might not have been to a slave auction and wouldn’t know what I was talking about, but the thought didn’t occur to me at the time. I can see now that there was a lack of sensitivity.″

And, Burns said, ″those in Montana who have participated in slave auctions may want to rethink this situation. Maybe there’s a better term - like indentured servants or something.″

Withers said Burns didn’t say he was talking about a charity event and that those who heard it regarded the remark as offensive because of the timing and context, coming just moments after the vote on civil rights.

″He came toward the elevator and was about to get on. He said, ‘I’m about to go to an auction,’ or something like that,″ she recalled.

She said Burns then ″looked expectantly at us, smiling.″

At that point, she said, Judith Lichtman, president of the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, said, ″Yes?″

″Then he said, ’Gonna auction off a couple slaves,‴ Withers said.

Kerry Scanlon, lobbyist with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he also heard the remark and was taken aback.

″I don’t think that any senator could be that unthinking not to realize what the impact of that statement would be, particularly to a group of civil rights activists and a group which included a significant number of blacks,″ Scanlon said.

Dustman, commenting for Burns, said he didn’t know whether the church class actually held such an auction. He declined to name the church.

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