Why Lott matters a lot

Everyone knows the story by now. Trent Lott, the soon-to-be Senate majority leader, showed up at the now-senile Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party Dec. 5. The Mississippian gazed affectionately at the oldest senator in history.

“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,” said Lott, beaming.

Strom grinned vacantly, much as if the senator from Mississippi had read off the genetic code for an eggplant.

But no one else was grinning for long. Almost immediately, there was an avalanche of protest from African-Americans, who charged that this was an outrageous act of racism. They demanded an immediate apology. What’s more, in what must have been a horrifying surprise to the Lottites, President Bush demanded one too, in no uncertain terms.

Since then, Trent has been apologizing all over the place, sounding contrite every time he passes a podium. Nevertheless, the NAACP and a few Democrats are still howling for his scalp.

A former student of mine, a well-educated 27-year-old woman, called to ask if the media weren’t, as usual, blowing this all out of proportion.

She is no fan of either Lott or Thurmond; she is Hispanic, works downtown, and can’t imagine voting for a Republican. She knows Thurmond was once a segregationist. But wasn’t all that a long time ago, and isn’t it all irrelevant now?

Well, no, it isn’t. And here’s why.

Strom Thurmond indeed ran for president a long time ago, 1948. And he was a segregationist, which everyone understood meant keeping blacks not only separate but terrorized and, in the eyes of the segregationists, permanently inferior.

That wasn’t just an incidental part of his campaign. That was literally all his candidacy was about. Extremist Southern Democrats — “Dixiecrats” — had walked out of the Democratic National Convention that year because President Truman was integrating the armed forces and making other noises about equality.

Horrified, the racists nominated Strom, who bellowed that the entire armed forces could never force any Negroes, as they were then called, into the white schools and churches, etc. They intended to cost the Democrats victory and teach them a lesson. They failed; Truman won a tremendous upset victory, though Strom carried four states.

Thurmond returned to the Democratic Party and stayed there until he switched to the Republicans when Barry Goldwater opposed the 1964 civil rights bill.

Despite what he said, Trent Lott didn’t really vote for Strom Thurmond for president; Lott was 7 years old. But he knows very well what Thurmond’s campaign was all about. Lott was freshly graduated from Ole Miss when Medgar Evers was shot in the back; he was in law school when three civil rights workers were tortured and murdered in Mississippi for attempting to register blacks to vote.

Nobody ever heard Trent Lott utter a syllable of protest against this. What he was doing in those days was fighting hard to keep his fraternity, Sigma Nu, from admitting any blacks to any of its chapters anywhere in the country, even the North.

When political conditions made it absolutely necessary, he gave up publicly supporting segregation. But there’s absolutely nothing in the record to indicate that, emotionally, he didn’t mean what he said at the birthday party.

Matter of fact, he’s said it before; researchers uncovered transcripts of a 1980 political rally where he said, “if we had elected [Thurmond] 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today.”

What about the argument that this was just a silly office birthday party for a man who is both hitting 100 and retiring?

Normally nothing said at a retirement party should be taken seriously. But this is a little different. There is a lot you could legitimately say about Thurmond to praise him: despite being technically too old for combat, he parachuted into Normandy on D-Day, for example, and was long a major force on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

He’s even more famous as a poster boy for geriatric sex; he fathered the first of four children at age 68 and the last at 75. Interestingly, Thurmond isn’t the real issue here; there are signs that he has worked to clean up his act on race.

In 1981, I actually had dinner with Strom Thurmond and interviewed him at length. He denied that he had ever been a racist; he said, “It was just a matter of defending the law of the land at the time,” and of defending states’ rights.

I didn’t entirely believe him. But he showed me that even in the bad old days he had helped black youngsters get college educations, though at all-black colleges. And when times changed, he became the first Southern senator to hire black staffers. He even voted to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday.

You have to give him some credit for growth, so late in life.

Trent Lott, however, deserves none at all. A rabbi told me the other day that the bottom line is the Republican Party is really now the white citizens’ party, despite a few ornaments like Colin and Condoleeza. The sophisticated understand this, but even Dubya understands a degree of subtlety is necessary. If Trent Lott remains majority leader, the clear signal will be that they now feel less need to pretty things up at all.

Sensible suggestion: John Kelly was forced to resign from the Wayne State University board last week after he was charged with a conflict of interest because he’s a lawyer for the Detroit Medical Center. To fill his term, Gov. John Engler ought to appoint Leon Atchison, who narrowly lost a re-election bid last month. Atchison has served WSU wisely and well since 1970, and should get the chance to keep doing so.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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