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Some thank Lott for showing racism still alive


In her newly released memoir, former Reagan-era Civil Rights Commission chair Linda Chavez recalled a pre-confirmation meeting with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then 81 years old.

“ ‘You’re not all that dark,’ he said, putting his hand next to mine for comparison. I could just see the wheels turning -- would it be miscegenation if he managed to have his way with me?”

The Strom Thurmond recalled by Chavez was the man his colleagues planned to fete at his 100th birthday party Dec. 5. Unfortunate details -- his role as the feisty standard-bearer for the segregationist Dixiecrats in 1948, his 24-hour filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act -- were to be omitted, replaced by a one-joke Friar’s Club-like roast: Whatever his shortcomings, Strom, that horny old coot, sure knew how to have a good time.

“I see so many people here today whose life Strom Thurmond has touched -- and some he even squeezed,” said a former Thurmond staffer. Among the many events the senator never missed back home in South Carolina, he continued, was “the opening of any Hooters Restaurant.” Viagra spokesman Bob Dole told Thurmond that he could set him up with his Pepsi advertising partner, 21-year-old Britney Spears. Eeech.

The party -- underwriters for which included the American Truckers Association, Circuit City and Lockheed Martin -- was sexist, tacky and not particularly funny (even by Washington’s anemic comedic standards). But none of it was even vaguely racist, which, given the honoree’s career, was notable.

Not, that is, until Mississippi’s Trent Lott took the microphone.

Keeping with the jocularity of the moment, Lott noted that his 89-year-old mother was smitten by the very senior senator. Thurmond liked that. Ha ha.

Lott continued, “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it.” Polite chuckles from the crowd. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

The room went quickly silent. Did he just say that? Some listening to the event -- C-SPAN Radio carried it live -- knew that there would be repercussions, though few would have guessed how far-reaching.

The event continued, but Lott had gone over the line.

Not the taste line, for that had been violated innumerable times in the course of the event. And not the sex line, because it was understood that anyone so humorless as to have a problem with honoring Thurmond in a burlesque manner didn’t have a vote worth getting.

No, he was in much deeper. “He got stuck in the American family taboo,” says Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams, founder of the Institute for Recovery from Racisms and head of the Detroit archdiocese’s Office for Black Catholic Ministries.

The pundits and prognosticators had a field day. Was Lott a racist? Did he really mean that “all these problems” Thurmond ran on in 1948 should have been settled along Dixiecrat lines? And what of his record -- votes against the Martin Luther King holiday and extension of the Voting Rights Act, opposition to affirmative action, previous favorable comments about Thurmond’s 1948 campaign, sympathy for Confederate president Jefferson Davis, support for segregationist Bob Jones University, cozying up to the Klan’s successors in his home state?

“I’m not surprised he said it,” said Sr. Anita Price Baird, a Daughter of the Heart of Mary who is president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference and director of the Chicago Archdiocesan Office of Racial Justice. “I think he spoke what he believed. … He comes out of the end of that generation that believes that the South was wronged, that they had a right to ‘states rights’ and, as George Wallace said, ‘Segregation yesterday, today and forever.’ ”

Continued Baird: “As a senator, in that setting, he probably thought he was safe saying that. There are no people of color in the Senate -- he felt he was in the living room making this statement and it backfired.”

The aftermath was a field day for Democrats, still reeling from their loss of the Senate the previous month. Though slow to take advantage (Democratic leader Tom Daschle, for example, initially gave Lott a pass), once on message they stayed there relentlessly. Republican activists, many with no great love for Lott to begin with, sensed opportunity and piled on. At first, Lott issued a strained apology -- he said his words were misconstrued -- then went on a public relations offensive where he pleaded for forgiveness.

Some conservatives -- Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh among them -- decried a double standard that called for Lott’s removal but largely ignored the overtly offensive statements of the Senate’s longest serving Democrat, former Ku Klux Klan member Robert Byrd.

Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, told the Associated Press that he is “not one of those calling for him to step down and give up his leadership post. We all make mistakes. We all make blunders. It’s very much in keeping with the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence to forgive and move on.”

It happens all the time in the workplace, said Williams, recalling the many workshops he has conducted on race issues: A white person makes a comment, is heard correctly or, for that matter, incorrectly, and then all hell breaks loose. Charges fly, accusations are made, and there is pain all around.

Lott is playing out a role Williams has seen countless times in those workshops. There’s denial (“I didn’t mean it like that”), fear (mostly of saying the “wrong thing”), anger, and guilt. The political and media fishbowl is not, said Williams, an arena suited to dealing with the larger issues raised by Lott’s comments.

For all the conversation Lott’s comments have engendered, Williams fears the episode will result in less dialogue about race, not more. “It’s a posture of disavowal -- it’s not me -- the only one who has a problem is Trent Lott and if we can just get rid of Trent Lott [then that will solve the problem],” said Williams.

“But if we get rid of Trent Lott,” continued Williams, “there are people lined up to take his position, another version, someone who hasn’t spoken out or taken a position. The person taking his place probably has the same voting record, but just didn’t make the mistake.”

Back in Chicago, Baird said she “was very grateful to Trent Lott.” The reason for her gratitude: It will enable her to counter the widespread notion that racism is largely a thing of the past, that “race relations are a lot better now.” Chicago is “one of the most racist cities in the nation” with levels of legal housing segregation unrivaled in the South, said Baird.

The Thurmond party, meanwhile, concluded as it began, in a flurry of bad taste. A Marilyn Monroe look-alike sang “Happy Birthday” in the suggestive manner the real Monroe had sung it 41 years earlier to President John F. Kennedy.

Strom Thurmond looked like a happy man.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002