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Trent Lott Should Be History

by Ralph E. Luker on Dec 11, 2002

Ralph E. Luker

While President Bush is reorganizing the leadership of his economic
team, Senate Republicans should reorganize their leadership as well. It is
time for their leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, to step, or be pushed,
The straw that broke this elephant's back was his imprudent tribute
on Dec. 5 at the 100th birthday party of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond of
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 of followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems
over all these years, either."
Lott might have said many things about the remarkable retiring
senior senator from South Carolina. "Longevity," as Martin Luther King
said, "has its place." It is due some respect. Or Lott might have paid
tribute to Thurmond as the first U.S. senator from the South who hired an
African American to serve on his senatorial staff.
But Lott paid tribute neither to Senator Thurmond's longevity nor
his capacity for growth. He celebrated the senator's notorious campaign for
president of the United States in 1948. Ignoring his own party's candidate
that year, Thomas E. Dewey, Lott said that not only should Thurmond have
been elected, but had he been elected the United States "wouldn't have had
all these problems over all these years." Celebrants at Strom Thurmond's
birthday party gasped; Trent Lott had just turned a spotlight on the
Republicans' illegitimate cousin at a family reunion.
In 1948, Strom Thurmond led a secession from the Democratic Party
by white segregationists in the deep South who bitterly opposed President
Truman's support of modest racial reform in the United States. The most
recalcitrant segregationists in Southern politics – Theophilus Eugene
"Bull" Connor of Alabama, Roy V. Harris of Georgia and Leander Perez of
Louisiana — led Thurmond's "Dixiecrats." On the evening of his nomination
for president at a convention in Birmingham, Thurmond's supporters
celebrated by lynching President Truman in effigy. During his campaign for
president, Thurmond said: "I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that
there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break
down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our
swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
If Trent Lott's tribute to the South's foremost segregationist in
1948 were exceptional, if this were only a slip of the tongue, he ought to
be forgiven. Most of us are capable of imprudent remarks. But Lott's
remarks are reminders that throughout the 1990s he was closely allied with
the Council of Conservative Citizens, a Southern organization cobbled
together by survivors of the White Citizens Councils, the John Birch
Society, and the presidential campaigns of Alabama's George C. Wallace. In
1992, Lott praised members of the Greenwood, Miss., neo-confederate Council
of Conservative Citizens for their "right principles" and "right
His remarks at Thurmond's birthday party were no mere slip. They
remind us that segregationists of the heart are alive and well, serving
even in seats of power.
After Strom Thurmond's birthday party, media observers saw Lott's
tribute to his retiring colleague as a remarkable gaff. "Oh god," said the
Weekly Standard's William Kristol, "it's ludicrous. He should remember it's
the party of Lincoln." Over the weekend, the Internet and Sunday morning
television pundits buzzed with commentary about it. The Washington Post's
David Broder said that it wasn't the first time Lott had said such things,
and political writer Joe Klein called it "outrageous." The usual suspects,
such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, called for Lott's retirement from
Senate leadership. Al Gore called for censure. Similar demands from
reliably conservative and Republican voices — the Center for the
Advancement of Capitalism, National Review, and the New Republic's former
editor, Andrew Sullivan — are more likely to influence Trent Lott's Senate
With the retirement of Oklahoma's J. C. Watts at the end of this
year, Republicans will lose their only African-American member of Congress.
President Bush has appointed talented African Americans to some of the
nation's highest offices. Senate Republicans should follow his example by
repudiating the leadership of Mississippi's Trent Lott. His perfunctory
apology is insufficient. Lott remains a segregationist of the heart.
Leadership, after all, is about managing with equity "all these problems
over all these years."

Ralph E. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.