Friday, December 13, 2002

From the heart

Were Lott's words really a mistake?


I've always been apprehensive about parties.

When I was a young, single journalist, I had to be dragged to parties. Most of my friends were white. They couldn't know why I was so reluctant to go.

Until I got there, and someone said or did something stupid, and I'd have to leave.

There was the friend's wife who loudly proclaimed at her party that she liked vacationing in Jamaica, except that there were "too many n - - - - -s" there. That killed the gaiety for me.

Then there are the Halloween parties. I usually beg off, saying I don't wear costumes. The real reason is that someone always shows up in black face. Excuses are conveyed to me unbidden; he or she wants to look like Michael Jackson or Oprah.

Then there are the racist conversational gaffes. And my favorite party pick-up line: "Is it true what Mick Jagger says about Brown Sugar?"

Slip of the tongue

Occasionally, the politically correct slip. The racism is revealed. Blacks brace for it.

That's why Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's recent tongue slippage at Sen. Strom Thurmond's birthday party is no surprise.

Mr. Lott tried paying tribute to the 100-year-old Republican. Instead Mr. Lott sounded like a sheet-toting Confederate unfurling the flag for one last go-round.

Referring to Mr. Thurmond's 1948 run for the presidency, Mr. Lott told a stunned audience: "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 followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

The "problems" Mr. Thurmond and his branch of southern segregationist "Dixiecrats" battled back then were plans for federal laws to strike down Jim Crow and lynching and to extend to blacks the right to vote.

A sample ballot from Mississippi said it all: "A vote for Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman's so-called civil-rights program .... This means the vicious ... anti-poll tax , anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land, and our way of life in the South will be gone forever."

Mr. Thurmond carried Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and his home state, South Carolina, but lost the race for president.

That was then

Since then Mr. Thurmond has repudiated his segregationist past. People no longer talk as he did, at least not in public. Mr. Lott has apologized twice for his "terrible" comments, calling them a "mistake of the head and not of the heart."

But were they?

Mr. Lott made a nearly identical remark at a political rally in Jackson, Miss., in 1980.

In 1981, he filed a court brief to help Bob Jones University keep its tax-exempt status despite its ban on interracial dating.

"Racial discrimination,'' he wrote, "does not always violate public policy."

Links to hate

Then there are Mr. Lott's ties with the Council of Conservative Citizens, successor of the White Citizens Council, a notorious hate group. Mr. Lott published articles in its newsletter and, as late as 1999, gave speeches. Last month the group lauded him for recommending that U.S. troops protect our borders from Mexican immigrants.

Sen. Lott's handlers say that his words at a party don't make him less qualified to lead the Senate. They say blacks should feel welcome to switch and vote Republican.

My apologies to the host, but I feel I must decline this invitation.

E-mail or phone 768-8395.

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