Trent Lott Should Be History

News at Home

Mr. Luker, an Atlanta historian, is co-editor of the first two volumes of The Papers of Martin Luther King and a writer for the History News Service.

"1948 Candidate for President of the US, carried 4 States and received 39 electoral votes as States Rights Democratic candidate (third largest independent electoral vote in US history) " -- from Strom Thurmond's official Senate website

While President Bush is reorganizing the leadership of his economic team, Senate Republicans should reorganize their leadership as well. It is time for their leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, to step, or be pushed, aside.

The straw that broke this elephant's back was his imprudent tribute on Dec. 5 at the 100th birthday party of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Lott might have said many things about the remarkable retiring senior senator from South Carolina. "Longevity," as Martin Luther King said, "has its place." It is due some respect. Or Lott might have paid tribute to Thurmond as the first U.S. senator from the South who hired an African American to serve on his senatorial staff.

But Lott paid tribute neither to Senator Thurmond's longevity nor his capacity for growth. He celebrated the senator's notorious campaign for president of the United States in 1948. Ignoring his own party's candidate that year, Thomas E. Dewey, Lott said that not only should Thurmond have been elected, but had he been elected the United States "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." Celebrants at Strom Thurmond's birthday party gasped; Trent Lott had just turned a spotlight on the Republicans' illegitimate cousin at a family reunion.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond led a secession from the Democratic Party by white segregationists in the deep South who bitterly opposed President Truman's support of modest racial reform in the United States. The most recalcitrant segregationists in Southern politics -- Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor of Alabama, Roy V. Harris of Georgia and Leander Perez of Louisiana -- led Thurmond's "Dixiecrats." On the evening of his nomination for president at a convention in Birmingham, Thurmond's supporters celebrated by lynching President Truman in effigy. During his campaign for president, Thurmond said: "I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

If Trent Lott's tribute to the South's foremost segregationist in 1948 were exceptional, if this were only a slip of the tongue, he ought to be forgiven. Most of us are capable of imprudent remarks. But Lott's remarks are reminders that throughout the 1990s he was closely allied with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a Southern organization cobbled together by survivors of the White Citizens Councils, the John Birch Society, and the presidential campaigns of Alabama's George C. Wallace. In 1992, Lott praised members of the Greenwood, Miss., neo-confederate Council of Conservative Citizens for their "right principles" and "right philosophy."

His remarks at Thurmond's birthday party were no mere slip. They remind us that segregationists of the heart are alive and well, serving even in seats of power.

After Strom Thurmond's birthday party, media observers saw Lott's tribute to his retiring colleague as a remarkable gaff. "Oh god," said the Weekly Standard's William Kristol, "it's ludicrous. He should remember it's the party of Lincoln." Over the weekend, the Internet and Sunday morning television pundits buzzed with commentary about it. The Washington Post's David Broder said that it wasn't the first time Lott had said such things, and political writer Joe Klein called it "outrageous." The usual suspects, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, called for Lott's retirement from Senate leadership. Al Gore called for censure. Similar demands from reliably conservative and Republican voices -- the Center for the Advancement of Capitalism, National Review, and the New Republic's former editor, Andrew Sullivan -- are more likely to influence Trent Lott's Senate colleagues.

With the retirement of Oklahoma's J. C. Watts at the end of this year, Republicans will lose their only African-American member of Congress. President Bush has appointed talented African Americans to some of the nation's highest offices. Senate Republicans should follow his example by repudiating the leadership of Mississippi's Trent Lott. His perfunctory apology is insufficient. Lott remains a segregationist of the heart. Leadership, after all, is about managing with equity "all these problems over all these years."


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2002

Thomas, Whether you like it or not, different rules apply to different offices. Husbands are not divorced by indictment by a majority vote in the House of Representatives and a conviction by two-thirds of the United States Senate. You mis-recall and misrepresent what I said in "... Rush to Judgment." Re-read its last paragraph. I haven't called for Lott's ouster from the U. S. Senate. Let's move on ...

Thomas Gunn - 12/21/2002

12-21-2002 ~1420


The "rules" for integrity, honesty and honor, apply equally to all. Ones expectation may be somewhat different than anothers, but the rules are the rules. But you bring up an interesting point. Lott is a politician and viewed with a certain skepticism. Michael is a acedemic with a Phd, and his scholarship is supposed to be beyond reproach. His "facts" should be universal. His interpretation of them may differ from that of other scholars but all should be able to agree that the facts are unchanged scholar to scholar.

You now claim your part in this was to reign in the critics of Michael's judges. BS! Michael had no judges (at least those you would define as judges) for over four years. Cramer complained at Michael's original paper in the OAH journal to no avail. Cramer complaigned to nearly anyone who would listen that Michael's 'facts' were wrong, and had the evidence to back his charges up. Not until Lundgren saw how abused HIS research was treated at Michael's hands did the 'peers' decide they could no longer ignore Michael's deceit.

It hasn't taken six years for Lott's critics to oust him, (from his position as majority leader, of course now that isn't enough for you) it only took two weeks.

I remember your essay, "too little, too late; too much too soon." Your weren't complaining at judicial criticism then, You were defending the man against what you thought was unfair criticism by folks not his peers. Too bad you don't apply the same requirments to yourself re Lott.

Michael did what he did to himself, Lott did what he did to himself. Lott apologized that his words were misunderstood and for his part in the misunderstanding. While Lott may be judged disingenuous, Michael continues to blame his critics for his problems. They've both received the punishment they each so richly deserve. Both may be in for more. Lott must face the voters. Michael's ARMING AMERICA still has a mountain of disputed "fact" yet to be revealed.

One last thing: Was there nothing redeeming or of any genuine value whatsoever in the Dixiecrat platform? Maybe YOU can start a thread that has nothing to do with Michael, ARMING AMERICA or gun control, with your answer.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2002

Sorry, Thomas, but you know that the rules are different for a college professor and for a Majority Leader of the United States Senate. Neither is immune to criticism. I didn't object to criticism of Bellesiles. I objected to attacks on his judges before the judgment was in. I didn't attack Lott's peers prior to their rendering of a judgment. Michael is out of a job; Trent Lott is still drawing a fat salary with lots of perks from the public trough. But, apparently, Michael's humiliation isn't quite humiliating enough to satisfy you; and Trent's pork and cushy perks are "gone." Get real.

Thomas Gunn - 12/21/2002

12-21-2002 ~1100


You are being deliberately obtuse. You even admit to a different set of rules and then couch the difference in, "appropriate rules for different offices".

It seems disingenuous, hell it IS disingenuous for you to deny the PC of those discussing Michael's failures, b/c it is outside the realm of peer review, and the "process" and then for you to condemn Lott and claim some right to do so when your discussion is equally outside the realm of peer review and the "process".

You cautioned Michael's judges with platitudes that the process should be given a chance to work its magic. In light of that what, pray tell, was the need for your 'rush to judgment' re Lott? Afraid the "process" wouldn't work; not fast enought for you? Lott's gone in two weeks, Michael's ARMING AMERICA is still with us.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/21/2002

I wasn't offended by your reference to Michael, just mystified about what it had to do with this conversation. As you recall, my argument was a defense of process and a plea to minimize ad hominem attacks. I made no defense of his methods or research. So you've distorted what I said. I had no need to look at the door of Michael's office. I took his colleagues' word for it.
I haven't followed different rules for different persons. I have followed appropriate rules for different offices. Trent Lott was about to become again the Majority Leader of the United States Senate. Michael was a Professor of History. The process of review necessarily differs because of the office they held -- not because I agreed with one or the other.
I'm no great Oz -- just one of many Southern Republicans (so Southern Republicans are not "them" but "us") who happen to think that it is inappropriate now to appeal to neo-confederate sympathies to win votes. To do so inevitably limits the party's appeal along racial lines and I don't think that is healthy. If you want to dismiss that as "propagandistic manipulation," it's your choice. It's mostly been a free country since 1865.

Thomas Gunn - 12/20/2002

12-20-2002 ~2245


I'm so sorry you are offended by my reference to Michael. I was not offended by your defense of him low these long months. Just confused. And surprised that you couldn't bring yourself to walk across the street and take a gander at his supposedly burned door. As I said before there are two sets of rules; the ones for the folks who support ideas and ideals you don't like and the ones for folks like you.

How is it you are the great Oz gets to decide just how the Southern Republicans and the leftover Dixiecrats view their symbols? S Repubs NEED to demonstrate their good will, or what, you'll continue to see them as racist? I actually thought you above this kind of propagandistic manipulation.

You wanna crucify Lott, be my guest. But for me, Michael deserves your attention more.


Ralph E. Luker - 12/20/2002

Jez, Thomas, how come you bring up Michael's name in _every_ conversation? Unfortunately, the dixiecrat stench is still with us -- not just six years -- but 54 years after the fact. Southern Republicans need to demonstrate their good faith, at least, once and for all, putting aside their appeal to neo-confederate symbols for votes. By so doing, they can acknowledge that all of us, not just the white folks, can fully share in the American dream.

Thomas Gunn - 12/20/2002

12-20-2002 ~1350

Yep! He's gone, and none too soon. Too bad it took six years to remove Bellesiles.

But then Michael was on the west side of the PC continuum. Unfortunately the stench remains.


Charles V. Mutschler - 12/20/2002

Mr. Luker,

You may have already heard this. Mr. Lott has stepped down as the Republican senate leader, as of this morning.


Jim Lynch - 12/17/2002

I truly don't mistake your take on the media's treatment of Robert Byrd (a.k.a. "Harry" to his colleagues..well, not really, of course; I inadvertently used the first name of the late Virginia senator), as being, in any way, an endorsement of Mr. Lott's twisted thinking. I simply disagree with it. The myth that a 'liberal press' excists, much less caters to the Democratic party, is laughable. Byrd escaped the firestorm that has engulfed Lott because he is not the majority leader of a party poised to take over Congress next month.

Both he and Lott, too, could with some fairness be included in the aforementioned roll-call of historical figures. Like them, both men are eminently capable politicians. Their talents have propelled them to the front ranks of their peers on a national stage. Both are emblamatic of the times in which they live. And, like them (indeed, like us all), both are flawed.

"Judge not that ye be not judged" is a wise admonition to any and all who might choose to discuss race relations in America. Jim Crow's solid south was created and maintained for a century by the Democratic party. The disaffected citizens who stood opposed to modern civil rights legislation subsequently flocked to the GOP, where they have since been adroitly cultivated. Is it any wonder, then, that we as a nation, who have come so far, have so far yet to go?

Mr. Lott's imbroglio is our own. As we grapple with it, we might profitably recall the discerning perspective granted Churchill upon the Axis defeat in North Africa: .."this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps,the end of the beginning". Maybe it's not too far- fetched to reasonably hope we've reached a similar point in our history, in our own epochal struggle. I sure hope so. Semper Fi, and Finis.

Steve B - 12/16/2002

Harry Byrd might have said something despicable (whoever he is), but Robert Byrd, who was and is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Commitee certainly did. He also got a pass for using the "n" word twice in a single broadcast.

Byrd was not a contemporary of Washington, Lincoln, Churchill or Malcolm X. He made these remarks on March 4, 2001. If he didn't get a "free walk", he got the next best thing.

Please don't mistake this for a defense of Lott's hypocrisy. I don't condone what he said or agree with it. What I'm talking about is the hypocrisy that accepts racism as long as it comes in a Democratic wrapping

Jim Lynch - 12/16/2002

And George Washington was a slaveholder. And Abe Lincoln advoacted expatriation, en masse, of black America. And Winston Churchill habitually referred to Chinese as "pigtails". And Malcolm X knew caucasians as "devils".

And Harry Byrd did not recieve a "free walk" for his stupid remark. It was widely reported, and the vernacular he employed justly condemned.

But none of them is the current majority leader of the U.S. Senate. Those who feebly protest that simple acknowledgement of Mr. Lott's hypocrisy amounts to political vendetta miss the point. And they always will. It's not about him, at all. It's about us.

Steve B - 12/16/2002

What is interesting is the double standard that has been applied to Lott. Robert Byrd, a Democrat, can go on a national news program, express ouotrageously racist views, and barely a peep is heard from the news media or academia.
You are right.It is a great country, if you're a Democratic politician.

Jim Lynch - 12/16/2002

Mr. Lott meant exactly what he said. His real transgression lay in his mealy-mouthed "apologies". Were he being honest about his epiphany of insights (to which he so casually alludes), he could easily cite those specific pieces of civil-rights legislation to which he once objected, and candidly explain why he did so. He could then relate the struggle of heart-and-mind that led him to renounce those beliefs. But he can't. Because, fundamentally, he hasn't changed at all. And those who have supported him through the years, both in Mississippi and nationally, have known that all along. And it was O.K. with them. And truth be told (political expediency aside), it still is O.K. Is this a great country, or what?

Iddy Itbachs - 12/12/2002

Once in a long while, CNN can do something useful after all.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/12/2002

Ken, The dixiecracker from Mississippi is almost as toasted as Cardinal Law. He never should have been the Republican leader in the Senate in the first place and he's just kept reminding us of that fact. My guess is that Bush's statement today is the White House's signal that it expects a resignation from Lott and that he'll be warming the backbenches by Monday. Your man, Frist, is probably the most likely choice to succeed him.

Ken Heineman - 12/12/2002

Mega dittoes Mr. Luker regarding your HNN piece and your conservativenet posting on Mr. Lott. Why oh why can't the system put great people like Mr. Frist in the Senate leadership?

Steve Broce - 12/12/2002

If you believe that, perhaps you should acquaint yourself with some of the things that Democratic senator Robert Byrd said on Tony Snow's program last year.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/11/2002

We now know that Trent Lott made similar remarks in 1980 after a speech by Strom Thurmond in Mississippi. From cutting his congressional teeth as administrative assistant to Mississippi's Dixiecrat congressman, William Colmer, in 1968 through his amicus brief in the Bob Jones University case in the early 1980s to slitting his congressional throat in tribute to Thurmond in 2002, Lott has been the quintessential Dixiecrat as Republican.

Paul Harvey - 12/11/2002

Patrick Fagan needs to wake up and read Ralph's column before commenting on it. The point is, Lott's comments are entirely consonant with his entire career of endorsing the usual segregationist code words beforefront groups that have replaced the Citizens' Councils (not unlike his House colleague Bob Barr). That's why it's time for Lott to step down--long past time. His comments were no imprudent accident, as Luker makes clear.

Patrick Fagan - 12/11/2002

I have never voted Republican, but I must say one thing in fairness to Trent Lott because I watched the entire birthday event on CSPAN.

I know that Ralph Luker and the others who have commented are basing their comments on the news media blurb. Why is it that people lambast a politician for three seconds of a one-hour-plus event? By the way, why has no one or the news media mentioned the three African-Americans in the audience applauding when Senator Lott made his comments? I wonder how many other African-Americans were in the audience. Maybe nobody knows this because they did not watch the entire event?

Trent Lott's speech had nothing to do with Thurmond being president. The majority of Americans and none of those responding on this website would know about it at all if his comments were not plastered all over CNN.

David Gerber - 12/11/2002

Lott's statement in praise of Thurmond's 1948 campaign is probably the most shameful and stupid thing said in American public life in a decade!

Bill Thompson - 12/11/2002

Re the articles that suggest if one likes the song "Dixie," or is caught
humming it to himself, that person must be banned from society, and totally
barred from public office henceforth and forever more. After all, it was
the battle cry of the racists just a few decades ago. Get Real. I never
heard one complaint from t he Black Caucus or Tom Daschle or any other

Bill Thompson
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Democrat or Civil Rights leader regarding the fact, not that Thurmond would
have made a good president, but the FACT
that HE ACTUALLY served as President Pro Tem of Senate and in that capacity
was third in line to President in case there was a vacancy in
office---1)vice president, 2) speaker of house, 3) president pro tem. Now
I guess it was responsibility of Republicans that they put Thurmond in such
a position. But the DEMOCRATS with Mr. Daschle in command of their
majorities, and with all civil rights leaders at their beckon call DID put
former Klansman Senator Byrd in that same precise position which was but
three heartbeats away from the White House. I think if one reviewed ALL
the congratulatory remarks regarding Senator Thurmond's 100th birthday, one
might find something a Democrat said that could be used to show that
Democrat to be a racist, like maybe--it has been a pleasure to serve with
Senator Thurmond---how dare a person say it was apleasure to serve with
someone who used to believe in segregation--what a racist thing to say.
Get real, we should all praise the hell out of the guy, so that he is so
happy to leave, he will never come back.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/11/2002

The full article is there. It begins below the ad and the blurb from Strom Thurmond's website.

G Thadathil - 12/11/2002

The white flight from the cities to the suburbs coincided with or perhaps followed by the white flight from the Democratic to the Republican party. It saw its culmination in the "Reagan revolution" of the 1980's. Perhaps such tendencies are not characteristic of just Republicans. Perhaps fundamentalist christians and the Christian coalition are also bastions of latent racism. Lots of Republicans of Lott's type represent those diehard "Dixiecrat Democrats" As the article points out, this is not the first time that Lott's inner racist makeup comes to the light and perhaps this is not the last time either.
Having said that, I am wondering, is it possible that we all have a little bit of Trent Lott in us? Who among us will be able to throw the first stone? Nevertheless, I fully agree with the conclusions of the author. That Lott occupies the most important position in the Legislative Branch of the government makes his sin bigger than that of all of us. Therefore, quite frankly, I think it is time for Lott to go. Would that mark the end of racism in American politics. Definitely not. What purpose does it serve? It should be a powerful reminder to all of us that there would be consequences for our words and deeds, regardless of the position that one holds.

mike wade - 12/11/2002

Fix it!!

Leslie - 12/11/2002

The contents of part of this very interesting article were blocked by an ad from the History Book Club. I understand that advertising is how a site like yours is able to survive, but if the advertising prevents me from reading the material on the site, that seems counterproductive.