Posted on December 16, 2002 in Washington Watch

By now the world knows that Republican Senator Trent Lott is in trouble of because of the comments he made at a December 5th, 100th birthday party for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

At the party, Lott noted that in 1948 when Thurmond ran for U.S. President as the cadidate of the “States’ Rights Party” Lott’s state of Mississippi had voted for Thurmond. Said Lott,

    I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And of the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years either.

The issue, of course, was that a central tenant of the States’ Rights Party was the demand that states had the right to reject federal government pressure to end policies that existed in many states enforcing strict separation of the races—a policy called segregation.

In fact the States’ Rights Party was formed primarily by Democrats from the South of the United States who left that party in protest after the Democrats had moved to support an anti-segregation platform. Thurmond, and arch segregationist, led the movement in 1948. His presidential campaign won four southern states.

As Democrats continued to champion anti-segregation policies over the next few decades, many more southern Democrats left the party and eventually became Republicans. In fact, the historic shift, in U.S. politics, of southern states from the Democratic to the Republican Party was a function of racial politics.

Lott’s remarks, seen in this context, appeared to be a clear endorsement of Thurmond’s segregationist agenda and a reminder of the deep racial divide that still plays a role in the United States today.

While segregation was officially ended as a matter of law in the 1960’s, the legacy of the racial divide remains. In the past several decades Congress has enacted legislation and the U.S. government has enforced laws to end discrimination and provide equal opportunity and access for all Americans. Segregation in education, public housing, and accommodations and other services has been outlawed. Steps have been taken to provide what has been called “affirmative action” – so that African Americans who have been excluded in certain areas of employment, housing, education, etc. could now be included. The rights of African Americans to vote have been guaranteed. And m ost recently, former President Clinton initiated a national dialogue on race in an effort to help heal the racial divide.

Nevertheless, problems remain. African Americans remain concerned by the gaps that exist in economic and educational opportunities. And some whites express resentment at the various federal programs, which they complain put them at a disadvantage.

Politicians have, at times, exploited these fears and, as a result, race remains a powerful electoral issue. Jesse Jackson, a prominent civil rights leader, has noted how some politicians have resorted to issuing “coded messages” to address white audiences and exploits their concerns.

Lott’s remarks were seen in this context. Some asked, “What exactly did Lott mean by “all these problems?’”

The fact that Senator Lott is no ordinary Republican, but is poised to resume the post of Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate (a post he held from 1996 to 2001), made his remarks of special consequence.

What was intriguing, though, about this entire affair was how it unfolded. Af first Lott’s comments were barely noted and not widely reported. Delivered on Thursday December 5, they did not break through nationally for almost five days. At first, only some African American members of Congress and former Vice President Al Gore were outspoken in reubking Lott for his comments.

By December 10, the story had become a major event and grew in prominence as more came to light about Senator Lott’s record on racial issues and other similar comments he had made. First it was reported that he had made virtually the same remarks in 1980 while campaigning in Mississippi with then candidate for President, Ronald Reagan.

Other enterprising researchers found in the public record evidence that:

  • Lott began his career as a staff aide for a segregationist Democratic congressman;

  • In 1978, as a member of Congress he fought to reinstate the U.S. citizenship of Jefferson Davis, the leader of the Confederacy that fought against the U.S. government in the Civil War;

  • In 1981 Lott presented an argument to the Supreme Court in favor of segregated private schools;

  • In Congress and the Senate Lott voted against the Voting Rights Act,, the Marting Luther King Federal Holiday Act and the Civil Rights Act Renewal of 1990.

  • Lott also maintained an affiliation with the “Sons of the Confederate Veterans,” and the Council of Conservative Citizens—a group that maintains a pro=segregation philosophy.

As the story grew, fueled by new information, Democrats who had been silent expressed outrage. Conservatives, however, were of three minds. Some like the Family Research Council, harshly criticized Lott. In a statement issued on December 10, the group noted:

    Sen. Lott seems to have little appreciation for how such comments as this are received among black Americans. The damage he’s done is considerable….Words matter, despite what may have been in Sen. Lott’s mind when he spoke. And the senator’s words, in the ears of black Americans, sound unmistakably like a repudiation of desegregation and the civil rights movement.

Others attempted to defend Lott’s comments as harmless and said that they did not reflect his true beliefs. Most, sensing the growing storm, remained quiet.

President Bush at first offered a statement of mild support for Lott, but finally realized that more had to be said. On December 12, speaking at an event in support of his “faith-based initiative” effort President Bush said,

    Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent vomments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. ...Every day our nation was segregated was a day that Amaerica was unfaithful to our founding ideals.

Finally, at week’s end Lott appeared before the press and offered his fourth apology of the week in yet another effort to squelch the growing storm.

It remains unclear whether his efforts will succeed. President Bush and other Republicans have been attempting to reach out to the African American voters and they may feel that Senator Lott’s remarks will doom their efforts in this regard. If so, they may decide to press Lott to step down as Majority Leader.

Democrats on the other hand, will continue to press for Lott’s resignation and have even dismissed Bush’s comments. They say that if the President succeeds in implementing hs faith-based initiative, privatizing education and ending affirmative action, the gains that African Americans have made will all be threatened. The struggle resulting from Senator Lott’s comments is far from over.

What all of this does point out clearly is that despite the prgress that has been made, the racial divide in th U.S. is real and a poten force in U.S. political life.

For comments contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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