Did Trent Lott's mother, who once publicly recommended that a bullet be put
through the head of a local editor who supported integration, raise the future
senator to be a bigot? Or was it his favorite uncle, Arnie Watson, a leader of
the White Citizens Council -- a more respectable version of the Ku Klux Klan --
who inspired the senator's lifelong love affair with race hate?
Other white Southerners, such as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, managed a bold
break with the evil ways of their elders, but not Lott. After a week of meandering
apologia, the best the Senate Republican leader could muster for his recent, but
not first, celebration of Strom Thurmond as a representative of the good old days
of segregation is that he -- Lott -- is a hapless product of the prevailing racism
of his youth: "I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that
we now know were wrong."
Now know were wrong? "Now," as in last week, when Lott was roundly denounced,
even by the president, for views he'd held all his life? Or is it "now" as in
this week, when a Republican rival is publicly gunning for his job as Senate majority
leader? Or "now" as in his keynote address in 1992 to the neo-segregationist Council
of Conservative Citizens, in which he was quoted as saying: "The people in this
room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."
In fact, race-baiting, though generally more subtle than Lott's embrace of
Thurmond's 1948 campaign for a segregated nation, is what gave the GOP dominance
in the Deep South, and Lott has long been one of its main practitioners. The so-called
Southern strategy, given its fullest support by Richard Nixon three decades ago,
successfully aimed at recruiting the white racist Dixiecrats who had been uncomfortable
with the Democratic Party since President Truman's 1947 order to desegregate the
When Lyndon Johnson pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Republicans
turned their backs on Lincoln and pro-civil rights Republican moderates like Dwight
Eisenhower and became the refuge of eternally aggrieved Southern racists.
Lott was one of those recruits, leaving his job as top aide to a retiring segregationist
Democrat and running with his mentor's support and money as a Republican, on Nixon's
coattails, in 1972. In the Senate, Lott outdid Thurmond himself when it came to
being a racial reactionary, opposing establishment of a Martin Luther King Jr.
holiday and extension of the Voting Rights Act.
Lott is above all else a politician, and his playing the race card, while periodically
impolitic, has been the consistent subtext of Republican campaigns for decades,
even in national races. Recall Lee Atwater's use of the Willie Horton scare endorsed
by the elder George Bush in his winning campaign against Michael Dukakis or the
intimidating attacks on black voting in Florida and elsewhere in the 2000 presidential
Perhaps with President Bush's belated but forthright condemnation of Lott,
this vicious opportunism will be abandoned and the GOP again will become the party
of Eisenhower, who used federal troops to enforce school desegregation.
It is interesting to note that prominent African American Republicans Colin
Powell and Condoleezza Rice have ignored Lott's appeals for support in his current
What Republicans must realize is that despite Lott's various stabs at apology,
what he will not concede is that racism -- real, powerful, cancerous -- continues
to haunt the nation and that the destruction of the black family, in particular,
is the direct consequence of an organized system of slavery and segregation that
aimed at destroying not only equal opportunity but the very humanity of black
Though nearly every group of immigrants to the United States has been discriminated
against to some extent, none arrived en masse in shackles as African Americans
did. Nor was any other group kept in the bondage of legal segregation for an additional
Racial prejudice continues to be the United States' Achilles heel, yet there
has been an increasing denial of the obligation to make good on its enduring debt
to black people. Even the mildest affirmative action programs are under attack.
Perhaps, thanks to Lott's most recent indiscretion, we may begin to more seriously
confront the ongoing duty to right racism.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times