Republican delegate Frank D. Hargrove, in comments published Tuesday in The Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Va., said slavery ended nearly 140 years ago with the Civil War and added: "I personally think that our black citizens should get over it."
The newspaper also quoted the 79-year-old lawmaker as saying: "Are we going to force the Jews to apologize for killing Christ?"
Responding to his critics Tuesday, Hargrove, who is 79, told a delegate whose Jewish ancestors immigrated from Nazi-occupied Poland that the delegate's skin is "a little too thin."
Black House of Delegates members swiftly denounced the comments Hargrove made on the holiday commemorating the life and mission of civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"When somebody tells me I should just get over slavery, I can only express my emotion by projecting that I am appalled, absolutely appalled," said Delegate Dwight C. Jones, head of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Delegate David L. Englin, a Democrat, seated next to Hargrove, spoke passionately about his grandparents leaving Poland "where they were driven from their homes by people who believed that as Jews, we killed Christ."
As he held up a wallet-sized photo of his 7-year-old son, Caleb, Englin struggled to keep his composure as he pondered the possibility that his child might have to cope with anti-Semitic comments.
When Englin sat, Hargrove reached over and softly patted Englin on the arm. Then, Hargrove rose to speak and, looking down at his seatmate, said, "I didn't even know you were Jewish, I had no idea of what your religion, (and) I don't care what your religion is. I don't care."
"I think your skin was a little too thin," he said as Republicans and Democrats gasped and groaned in disbelief.
Such comments by any elected official only add to the anti-Jewish animosity, said David Friedman, director of the Washington, D.C., regional office of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.
"What he has done is inject his own personal bigotry into a very difficult and heated discussion and in no way, by injecting that, does he do anything to illuminate the debate," Friedman said. "He raised the need for an apology in a manner that I'm sure he never intended."
The controversy hits nerves already sore in Virginia, only a few months after another incident involving a racially-charged comment by an elected official.
At an August campaign rally before a mostly white crowd, then-Senatorpointed into the crowd to a Virginia-born man of Indian descent working as a volunteer for his Democratic opponent and referred to him as a "macaca," a racial slur in some cultures. What had been a comfortable lead held by the GOP incumbent evaporated as the remarks became a campaign issue, and Allen lost to Democrat Jim Webb, by a margin of about 9,000 votes.