The incredible thing about the controversy surrounding soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s kissing up to the racist legacy of Strom Thurmond is that anyone thinks it is incredible.
Lott is on the hot seat for telling a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who in 1948 ran an overtly racist campaign for president on the State’s Rights Party ticket: “I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”
Those remarks have caused a major stir, which is appropriate. But this is hardly the first time that Lott, who began his political career in the 1960s as an aide to segregationist Democratic Congressman William Colmer, has hailed the legacy of those who fought to defend the practices of slavery and segregation. Nor is the tortured “apology” Lott has issued the first to come from the senator.
Indeed, there is no greater constant in Trent Lott’s political career than his embrace of all things Confederate.
* In 1978, after his election to the US House, Lott led a successful campaign to have the US citizenship of Jefferson Davis restored. Davis lost his citizenship when he became president of the Confederate States of America when southern states were in open revolt against the US government.
* During the 1980 campaign, after Thurmond spoke at a Mississippi rally for Ronald Reagan, Lott said of the old Dixiecrat: “You know, if we had elected that man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
* In 1981, when he was lending his prestige as a member of the US Congress to an effort to preserve the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University — the notorious South Carolina college that was under fire for prohibiting interracial dating — Lott insisted that, “Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy.”
* Despite the fact that he represents the state with the largest percentage of African-American citizens in the US, Lott has throughout his career been an active supporter of the Sons of the Confederacy, a group that celebrates the soldiers who fought to defend the “right” of Mississippians to own African-Americans as slaves.” Lott even appears in recruitment videos for the group.
* Speaking at a 1984 convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lott declared that “the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform.” Asked to explain his statement in an interview with the extreme rightwing publication Southern Partisan, Lott said, “I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important to people across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party… and more of The South’s sons, Jefferson Davis’ descendants, direct or indirect, are becoming involved with the Republican party.”
* Lott gave the keynote address at a 1992 national executive board meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a successor organization to the old white Citizens Councils, segregation-era groups the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to as “the white-collar Ku Klux Klan. The C of CC may have changed its name, but it remains a passionate “white racialist” group that condemns intermarriage, integration and immigration by non-whites. As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson, who has researched the group, argues, “There is no question of the resegregationist agenda of the Council of Conservative Citizens when four of the seven links listed on the home page for former Klan leader David Duke link back to the Council of Conservative Citizens.” Other links, Jackson has noted, “deny the Holocaust and sell T-shirts with swastikas and Nazi stormtrooper symbols.” But when Lott appeared at that Greenwood, Mississippi, meeting of C of CC leaders, he did not address his disdain for racism or anti-Semitism. Rather, he discussed his concerns about “the dark forces” that he said were overwhelming America and said, “We need more meetings like this across the nation… The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let’s take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries.”
* In 1997, Lott was photographed meeting with national leaders of the C of CC in his Washington office. At his side were two prominent C of CC leaders: Gordon Baum, a former field organizer for the Citizens Councils in the days when they were referred to as the “uptown Klan,” and William Lord, who has acknowledged using the mailing lists of the Citizens Councils to build the C of CC in the 1980s and 1990s. That same year, the C of CC used an endorsement quote from Lott in recruitment literature.
* When the Washington Post began to detail Lott’s ties to the C of CC, his office announced that he had “no firsthand knowledge of the group’s views.” But when The New York Times asked Lott’s uncle, former Mississippi state Sen. Arnie Watson, a member of the C of CC executive board, about ties between the senator and the organization, Watson said, “Trent is an honorary member.” When a reporter for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger showed up at a 1998 C of CC meeting in Mississippi, he was told by those in attendance that Lott was a member. Lott’s office never challenged the report when it appeared in his homestate’s largest newspaper. But a year later, when the Washington Post took the issue up, Lott said, “I have made my condemnation of the white supremacist and racist view of this group, or any group, clear.”
* Yet, a column written by Lott still appeared on a regular basis in the Citizens Informer, the group’s publication, alongside articles thick with statements like: “Western civilization, with all its might and glory, would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race. Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself.”
* Go to the website of the Council of Conservative Citizens today and you will find, beneath the Confederate flag and the section attacking an African-American professor at Vanderbilt, a big smiling picture of the Mississippi senator next to headlines that read: “A Lott of Courage!” “C of CC Passes Resolution Commending Lott” and “Lott Needs Your Support.”
When he started to face questions about his most recent praise of Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign, Lott initially said that his remarks were just part of “a lighthearted celebration” of the retiring segregationist’s career. That was enough for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, to give Lott an initial pass. But, thankfully, Julian Bond and the NAACP, and a few African-American and progressive members of the House, refused to allow the matter to die. Only under this lingering pressure did Lott sort of apologize by saying of his statement at the Thurmond bash: “I regret the way it has been interpreted.”
That’s the standard line from Lott, who always apologizes when he gets caught defending the defenders of slavery and segregation. But, so far, Lott has never failed to follow each “apology” with another tribute to the Confederacy or the segregationists who seek even in the 21st century to maintain the racist legacy of Jefferson Davis, Strom Thurmond and the “uptown Klan.”