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Trent Lott Should Be History

"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.