Sorry, but I don’t think Trent Lott has dug himself out of the hole he plunged into by heaping praise on Strom Thurmond. He can keep on apologizing forever for his remarks, but the things he exposed about himself and his party are too important to just go away.
The Senate Republican leader is oblivious to how old school he and his Southern Republican ilk are, even though he tried to convince everyone otherwise in a rambling Friday evening news conference broadcast from his hometown of Pascagoula, Miss. He and white Southerners like Thurmond, the retiring senator from South Carolina, were shaped by a mindset that the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared at his 1963 inauguration: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
Wallace’s words then were as “spontaneous and insensitive” as Lott claims his were at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Though separated by a generation, each man was shaped by a South that, as President Bush said Thursday, was “unfaithful to our ideals.”
Lott & Co. are from a time when black mammies nurtured them and black men as old as Ol’ Strom were called boys. They hijacked the Republican Party when the Democrats became too friendly with the civil rights movement. Ever since then, they have been doing a cha-cha between the rabid racists who are among their core supporters and the more sophisticated people who are attracted to some of the policies of the modern GOP but repulsed by any and all links to Southern racism. But when you do a dance between opposing camps, any misstep can expose your trickery. And that’s what happened when Lott spoke glowingly of Thurmond’s 1948 run for the presidency on a segregationist ticket.
Thurmond carried four states that year: Mississippi, his own South Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years,” Lott said at Thurmond’s birthday party.
“Problems,” of course, like all those Negroes demanding the right to vote that should have been theirs since the formation of the country _ and certainly after the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870. One of Strom’s senatorial claims to fame, other than growing old, was a 1957 anti-civil-rights filibuster that lasted more than 24 hours, the longest in Senate history.
Not all Southern Democrats were so retrograde; after all, the greatest of civil rights Presidents was that Texan, Lyndon Johnson. But in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the Thurmonds and their progeny were conservators of an antebellum past and a Jim Crow present. They took over the party of Lincoln down South.
The long-bred Southern racism that went underground as Democrats defected to the Republican Party, making it something quite different down South than it was in, say, the Northeast, burst on the scene as a new conservatism in the time of Ronald Reagan. And by President Bush’s time, they’d convinced themselves that they could even be compassionate conservatives, with room at the table for a few people of color. There’s always room for a few, you know.
For some Democrats, this flap over Lott’s loose lips is an opportunity for political one-upmanship; for the NAACP, this is a chance to become more publicly relevant and gain a few members. But for me, this is one of those last gasps of the South into which I was born “colored” 47 years ago. It’s the Ku Klux Klan rallying at Stone Mountain, not too far from my Georgia home.
It’s the night riders whom Stella McCollum was ready to spray with buckshot if they showed up in the yard we shared on Main St. It’s the White Citizens Councils and their more publicly palatable Council of Conservative Citizens _ those friends of Lott’s he found himself forced to disavow a few years ago.
No, Lott & Co. still don’t get it. They think racism is lynching somebody, but racism is the poison that oozes from their pores when they think they are having lighthearted moments _ like wishing for the nation that might have been had Ol’ Strom defeated Harry Truman.
Saying “sorry” for “hurting many Americans” is evidence they don’t get it. If they truly had renounced this brand of racism, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years,” to borrow Lott’s own words.
– E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996.