Senator Trent Lott told Black Entertainment Television Monday night that his current troubles offer “an opportunity for me to do something about years of misbehavior.” The Mississippi Republican inadvertently pinpointed why he cannot remain Senate GOP leader. He has pushed racial buttons over five decades.
At South Carolina Republican Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party on December 5, Lott said that America “wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years” had Thurmond secured the presidency in 1948. Were that the first time Lott said this, he could be excused for having a bad hair day or perhaps too much Southern Comfort in his eggnog.
But NBC Nightly News aired footage Tuesday of Thurmond signing a document at an October 2000 Capitol Hill ceremony. “Now this is a famous signature right here,” Lott mumbled near an open microphone. He added that Thurmond “should have been president in 1947, I think it was.”
And yet again, in November 1980, then-Rep. Lott declared while campaigning with Thurmond: “You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
But Lott’s “years of misbehavior” in word and deed began even earlier.
While at Ole Miss, Lott reportedly led an early-1960s bid to bar blacks from his fraternity, Sigma Nu. “Trent was one of the strongest leaders in resisting the integration of the national fraternity in any of the chapters,” even outside the south, Sigma Nu alumnus and former CNN President Tom Johnson told Time’s Karen Tumulty. To avoid a convention walkout by segregationists who favored a nationwide no-blacks policy, the fraternity voted to stay all white.
Lott’s response is twofold. His spokesman told Time: “Those were different times in a different era. Senator Lott believes that segregation is immoral and repudiates it.” Yet Lott said he attended Sigma Nu’s confab to sing: “I was in the entertainment,” Lott told Newsweek. “I did not speak.”
Mississippians sent Lott to the House in 1972. Six years later, his efforts restored Jefferson Davis’s citizenship. Lott repeatedly lauded the former Confederate president, a man who endorsed not just segregation, but slavery. Lott crowed in May 1998: “Sometimes I feel closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America.”
Lott told Richard T. Hines in the Fall 1984 Southern Partisan magazine, “I think that a lot of the fundamental principles that Jefferson Davis believed in are very important today to people all across the country, and they apply to the Republican Party.” He argued that Americans in Biloxi, Mississippi and Los Angeles should be free to live their lives without undue federal pressure.
“The Republican party still believes that the states have a specified role under the Constitution,” Lott added. Republicans call this federalism, a noble concept the Founding Fathers established. So why not cite James Madison or the 10th Amendment rather than a Confederate leader?
Lott continued: “The platform we had in Dallas, the 1984 Republican Platform, all the ideas we supported there — from tax policy, from individual rights, to neighborhood security — are things that Jefferson Davis and his people believed in.”
Really? As an assistant chief page, I was a 20-year-old officer of the 1984 GOP Convention. It was an all-American love-in for Ronald Reagan. I heard no one in Dallas invoke Jefferson Davis, especially not his contributions to personal liberty or supply-side tax relief.
In 1981, meanwhile, Lott filed a legal brief arguing that South Carolina’s Bob Jones University should maintain its tax-exempt status despite its ban on interracial dating.
Like BJU, another Lott-friendly organization worries about miscegenation. The St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens has published Lott’s writings in its newsletter, “Citizen Informer.” According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Lott addressed the CCC and, in 1997, met privately in his Senate office with CCC leaders George Baum, Bill Lord, and Tom Dover. At this writing, the group’s Confederate-flag-bearing homepage features a photo of Trent Lott labeled “A LOTT of Courage!” The CCC praises Lott for demanding U.S. troops on America’s borders.
Several articles on CCC’s website applaud Lott’s latest remarks.
“What Trent Lott said was true,” writes Michael Andrew Grissom, author of Southern by the Grace of God and The Last Rebel Yell. “Lott may never have meant, as happily charged in the press, that we would have been better off with a segregationist President, but I wish he had. It is true, and it is time someone says so.” Adds columnist Sam Francis, Thurmond’s win would have meant, “Probably no mass immigration. No self-hate for whites. No guilt. No fear.”
An editorialist named Beauregarde opposes reparations for slavery (as do I), although for far different reasons. “America simply cannot afford a trillion dollar shakedown to placate the embittered ghosts of Mammy and Uncle Tom,” Beauregarde writes. “One day, we will need money to buy Texas and California back from Mexico.”
The group’s website explains that “the C of CC has been singularly effective in thwarting many schemes by left-wing militants to rob white Americans of their rights and heritage.” It also “stands against the tide of nonwhite, Third World immigrants swamping this country.”
Writer H. Millard once complained on CCC’s website that mixed children dilute the white race. As he stated: “Genocide via the bedroom chamber is just as long-lasting as genocide via the gas chamber.”
Does Lott buy any of this? When reporters asked, Lott’s office released a December 1998 statement denouncing “the racist view of this group.” But Lott swooned before 400 participants at CCC’s 1992 national board meeting in Greenwood, Mississippi. “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy,” Lott said. “Let’s take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries!”
One almost pities this man, trapped in a time warp, somewhere between 1865 and 1965. Lott seems humbled, if bewildered, by the barrel of bad ink he spilled onto himself. And he appeared sincere when he told BET’s Ed Gordon: “I am going to have to make changes and make amends and do something about it.”
Lott’s GOP colleagues should encourage him to pursue self-discovery and individual redemption as Mississippi’s junior senator. If he remains America’s third-most-powerful Republican, however, Trent Lott will drag his party through two years of racial group therapy. That should render Republicans sensitive enough to cry over their scuttled policy agenda as they face furious blacks and suspicious whites on Election Day 2004.