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With his words, Trent Lott lost in the game of racial politics

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

Trent Lott keeps apologizing to Americans who were deeply offended and sickened by his statement that the nation would have been better off if Strom Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrat campaign for president had succeeded in 1948. The Mississippi Republican in line to become Senate majority leader in January insists his nostalgic salute to Jim Crow bigotry was a mistake of the head, not of the heart, as if that makes a difference. It's easier to accept his apology than his explanation.

This was no slip of the tongue, no disconnect between head and heart. Lott used almost identical words to praise Thurmond in 1980. And as recently as the 1990s he was cozy with the Council of Conservative Citizens, an offshoot of the White Citizens Council, telling them in one speech that they "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." When asked about his remarks to that group years later, Lott was shocked, shocked to learn of its segregationist history.

This is what he said on the occasion of Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we (Mississippi) 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."

What "problems" are you talking about, Senator? We're still waiting for you to explain. Were you were referring to civil rights legislation that allows African-Americans to vote, to rent a motel room or get a meal in a restaurant or to drink out of the same public water fountain that whites use? Or maybe you were thinking about those "outside agitators" and "communists" who marched and, in some cases, died for freedom and equality in your state? I wonder if Lott really believes that a President Thurmond could have kept the nation from coming to terms with the evil of racial segregation?

The Senate leader's shameful embrace of Thurmond's segregationist past defies explanation. He tipped his hat to a man who was on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of equality and justice, and the wrong side of the greatest moral issue to ever confront this nation's conscience. Lott has been left behind even by the man he was trying to honor. Strom Thurmond still has enough mind not to publicly utter the kind of racially charged words Lott spoke. Thurmond has spent his last three decades trying to live down his past and move beyond race, although unlike George Wallace, he has never admitted he was wrong on civil rights or asked for forgiveness.

Lott is not a bigot in the sense that he advocates racial segregation. He said last week that segregation is "morally wrong." That's reassuring, but how does he reconcile that belief with his disappointment that Thurmond didn't make it to the White House? Lott has attained respectability and power, but he has diminished both by his salute to a man who for much of his career symbolized the racist politics that morally and politically disfigured the South.

Even before Lott got caught up in the birthday spirit and went over the edge, some of the praise heaped on Thurmond -- by President Bush and senators from both parties -- was as dishonest as it was excessive. They called him a "great American" and "a great South Carolinian." But no one had the guts to call him what really was -- a rabid segregationist who poisoned his region's politics and harmed his nation. All that unpleasantness was forgotten -- or at least not mentioned in polite company -- until Lott's shocking remarks cracked the door to Thurmond's past.

Thurmond never made it to the White House, much to Lott's disappointment, but he did switch to the Republican Party four decades ago and helped it break the Democratic lock on the Deep South. The Southern Democrats of old were nakedly racist in their politics. They spoke of the "Negro menace" and fanned the flames of hate. A few, like the late Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, were embarrassed by these crude demagogues. Russell, a confidante of presidents, used his power and respectability to cloak his defense of segregation with a "states rights" argument. In some ways, his kind were worse than the Bilbos and Thurmonds, who didn't try to hide their racist beliefs.

Republicans have been more subtle in exploiting the region's racial resentments. Richard Nixon had his "Southern Strategy," and Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., where three young civil rights workers were murdered and buried under an earthen dam. Last month, Sonny Perdue pulled off a stunning upset, becoming the first Republican elected governor of Georgia since 1872. Perdue promised to allow voters to decide whether to make the Confederate battle emblem the dominant feature of the state flag.

This is the way Republicans, and some Democrats, have played racial politics in the modern South -- say all the right things about racial harmony and then use code words and symbols to whisper into the ears of white voters that you understand them. Even Jimmy Carter's political career was smudged by racial politics. In his 1970 campaign for governor of Georgia, Carter visited private seg academies and, unlike his more liberal opponent, promised to invite George Wallace to address the Georgia Legislature. In his inaugural speech, Carter shocked segregationists by declaring that the time for racial discrimination was past. He went on to become president of the United States and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

No wonder Republicans are asking each other, "How could Lott be so stupid?" Doesn't he know how to play the game anymore?

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