Among the obscenities accumulating in the political atmosphere, the most disgusting may be Trent Lott. He is a racist–actually an unreconstructed segregationist–and he is about to become again the majority leader of the Senate. We knew the truth about this man long ago, since his career in Washington is littered with the evidence of his reactionary views on race. But what makes him particularly dangerous at this moment is that, buoyed by postelection Republican triumphalism, the Mississippi Senator found the audacity to crow about his racist opinions in public. This occurred at the hundredth birthday party for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, who himself carried the white-supremacy banner back in 1948, when he ran for President as the Dixiecrat candidate, proclaiming: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negroes into our homes, our schools, our churches.”
This is how Senator Lott toasted the old man from South Carolina: “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.” Who is the “we” in Lott’s declaration? The white people of the South who used the powers of state and local governments to impose the racial caste system called Jim Crow upon their fellow citizens. What were “all these problems” Lott wished to avoid? The triumph of legal equality for African-Americans, including, in the South, the long-denied right to vote. The victory was won, despite the hostility of segs like Lott and Thurmond, by people of very humble means who struggled valiantly for years, through pain and bloodshed, to overcome the stranglehold of America’s apartheid. In the end, as Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied, they liberated white Americans too, including white Mississippians, by removing this historic stain from our society. Senator Lott was not saved, however. It is a scandal that he is allowed to hold such a powerful position in the Republican Party.
Where is the outrage? The general silence is more alarming than Lott himself. The New York Times initially found his remarks un-newsworthy and acknowledged them only after Lott issued, first, a slippery denial, then a grudging apology. The Washington Post published a crisp, comprehensive account by Thomas Edsall, but it ran on page six, not on the front page where it belonged. Edsall reminded readers that in 1992, Senator Lott spoke before a remnant white-supremacist organization, the devoted successor to Mississippi’s notorious White Citizens Councils, which acted like a racial gestapo in the 1950s. Lott always denies the obvious when he is caught out. As a freshman Congressman two decades ago, one of the first bills he introduced was to halt school desegregation. At a 1980 GOP rally, Lott expressed the same longings–if Thurmond had been elected thirty years before, he said, “we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.” Lott successfully lobbied Ronald Reagan to uphold tax-free status for Bob Jones University and the private “seg academies” forming in the South (the Gipper reversed under public attack). As a youth, Lott was a Rebel cheerleader at Ole Miss, waving the Confederate flag at football games while federal troops were on campus enforcing the court-ordered admission of James Meredith.
Where are the denunciations by those in power? Where are those much-heralded “moderates” in the Republican Party whose commitment to racial equality is not in question? Will John McCain speak out boldly, as he often does? For that matter, will Democrats? Al Gore, to his credit, swiftly demanded a Senate censure resolution. But Tom Daschle, true to the club, dismissed Lott’s ugly remarks as misconstrued. The Senator did not “misspeak.” He has not changed his views in forty years.
Lott’s offense cannot be dismissed as a casual slight, because it reflects the general erosion of decent sensibilities in American politics, a coarsening that prepares people to accede to more vicious assaults on justice by the government. In 1976 the Ford Administration’s Agriculture Secretary, Earl Butz, was instantly compelled to resign after it was disclosed he had told an ugly racist joke (in a private conversation). This time, the notables avert their eyes and pretend they didn’t hear what Lott said.
Their casual indifference reminds us that the convicted and unconvicted co-conspirators from Reagan’s Iran/contra scandal are now back in the Bush Administration, once again fiddling with the Constitution and our civil liberties. It reminds us that conservatives are currently making yucks about affirmative action and “diversity” in public institutions of higher learning as though “we” all agree that the Supreme Court should abolish the formal pursuit of equality in education.
When precious standards of government probity and equity are sliced up by right-wing wisecracks and Washington smiles, it has political meaning. If the real “we” in America care about the values under assault, we had better make our anger heard–loudly and now–before an acquiescent silence is interpreted as license to do still more damage to the Republic.
Resign, Senator, resign. The President should take you aside and ask for it. The sickness in your mind and heart is your private burden, but it does not belong in American public life. If you lack the character to withdraw, at least approach the American people and explain to us why, after all these decades of progress, you are still enthralled by the era of racial separation and oppression.