01 Jan 2003 Lott Had to Go, by Kimberley Jane Wilson
When Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) woke up on the morning of Senator Strom Thurmond’s (R-SC) 100th birthday celebration, I’m sure he had no idea that he and his big mouth would be the biggest political story of last December.
Lott, who was then the designated majority leader for the new Senate session, probably intended to say something sugary-sweet about an old man’s extraordinarily long career. What came out, however, was a sour reminder of the past. It was a reminder both the Republicans and the country could have done without.
“I want to say this about my state,” Lott crowed at the celebration. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we 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.”
In 1948, when Thurmond ran for President, he was a Dixiecrat running on an anti-civil rights platform. To put it plainly, ol’ Strom and the Dixiecrats wanted to keep the hammer of segregation planted firmly on black America’s neck. The “problem” that Dixiecrats were concerned about was the possibility black people would one day have the same rights as whites.
It’s possible that Lott meant nothing by his statement. It’s possible he wasn’t thinking about segregation, and it’s possible the designated majority leader for the Senate at the time wasn’t being nostalgic about the “good old days” of Jim Crow. The trouble was, Lott has been tone deaf on race for years.
NBC Nightly News aired film clips from 1980 and 2000 showing Lott praising Thurmond’s 1948 presidential race and, one must assume, all it stood for. To reasonable people, Lott appears to wish the civil rights movement never happened.
Lott apologized repeatedly and appeared on Black Entertainment Television, where he blathered on about how much he supports affirmative action. Looking at Lott’s voting record, I assume this support was only spiritual. The BET appearance only made him look worse.
In the end, Lott resigned as majority leader but remains a senator.
Lott’s defenders say the controversy was overblown. They insist Lott is a good man who simply made a stupid statement. They point to Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), a former Ku Klux Klansman who recently used the term white n-ers on television, and Jesse Jackson, who once used the anti-Jewish slur “Hymietown” to refer to New York City, as examples of liberals who have made offensive statements but were allowed to go on with their lives and careers.
Lott’s friends further argue that a good man shouldn’t have suffered so much from a slip of the tongue. This controversy, however, goes far beyond being about one man with a motormouth.
Trent Lott is either a bumbling fool or a bigot who accidentally spoke with his lips what has been hidden in his heart. Which is the truth?
The Republican Party has made a lot of noise over past few years about reaching out to black voters. Senator Lott pretty much set any efforts in that direction back – almost to the drawing board. Lott’s resignation from the Senate leadership was a good thing, but his party has been tarnished. He opened up a huge can of fat and lively worms, and there are those who are unwilling to forget about it. On December 21, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) said, “What [Lott] did was state what many of them have stated privately over many years in the back roads and back streets of the South.”
Guess what? Most black Americans agree with Senator Clinton. The controversy is not over. Rebuilding must be done.
This story is more than a tussle between Republicans and Democrats or liberals and conservatives. It’s about the leadership of this country and what kind people are allowed to hold our highest positions. The people of Mississippi voted Trent Lott in, and only they should be the ones to vote him out. But there was no way he could go on as Senate Majority Leader.
If Trent Lott hadn’t resigned, the Republicans would have been compelled to remove him. He simply had to go.