Trent Lott Does Black Conservatives a Tremendous Disservice, by Ak’bar Shabazz

At a 100th birthday celebration for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), designated Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) praised the centenarian’s 1948 presidential campaign. Praise of Thurmond is permissible, but not the basis of the man’s campaign. Lott’s misguided honor brings his leadership into question.

Then-governor Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat on a platform supporting racial segregation. “We voted for him. We’re proud of it,” said Lott of his fellow Mississippians. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.” This isn’t the first time Lott’s made this assertion. He voiced similar praise in 1980. While it doesn’t seem much has altered in Lott’s philosophy in 20 years, the world definitely has changed.

This all raises several concerns. The most obvious are the “problems” to which Lott refers. Blacks voting? Black children in previously all-white schools? Blacks drinking coffee or eating breakfast at a table right next to him?

Also, how has Lott hurt genuine conservative attempts to appeal to black voters?

Senator Thurmond’s record on race-related issues speaks for itself. Although he later became the first Southern senator to appoint a black to his staff, Thurmond and people like him damaged race relations in our country. A good portion of his life was dedicated to causing confusion and restricting the benefit of constitutional rights only to a segment of the population.

Segregation was a dark part of our nation’s history. The civil rights movement changed America, and no longer can bigots openly roam the halls of our nation’s capitol with the blatant intention of limiting the power and progress of non-whites. Our country matured, and voters have removed those with obvious racist intentions.

However, not everyone harboring prejudices is gone. Some became aware of the trending situation and hid their robes. Senators Thurmond, Robert Byrd (D-WV) and retiring Jesse Helms (R-NC) all went through “conversions” in which they pushed away positions they once held dear. Members of the White Citizens Council who intimidated, harassed and lynched blacks in the South for many years, for example, essentially became the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) to obscure their past.

Although not of this older generation, Lott’s actions now raise questions about where his loyalties lie on race issues. It was recently reported that Lott supported keeping black students from joining his fraternity while in college. He also spoke before the CCC and allowed them to publish his writings. He opposed the national King holiday. Then there are the Thurmond remarks.

Republican gains in black communities during the past election didn’t happen by accident. There are people across the country who are committed to bringing the conservative message of the Republican Party to places that were traditionally conceded to the Democrats. I belong to a group in Georgia dedicated to finding qualified black Republican candidates, training them and helping them network. Lott’s remarks hurt my efforts.

Constantly, we must respond to Democratic attacks on our integrity and commitment to our community. Lott has given them a powerful tool for the 2004 campaign. If you think the NAACP’s James Byrd ad in 2000 was powerful, this will be worse, because it will be based in truth rather than deception. Failure to act upon this quickly and decisively will slow down the momentum that conservatives have gained in getting blacks to take a fresh look at our political affiliations.

If Republicans and conservatives are serious about winning and keeping black support, then Trent Lott must concede his senatorial leadership position. The people of Mississippi elected him to serve their interests so he should not give up his seat altogether. But it is in the conservatives’ interest to make sure the progress we’ve gained is not lost.

(Ak’bar Shabazz, an Atlanta native, is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments may be sent to [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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