Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi has provoked criticism by saying the United States would have been better off if then-segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948.
Speaking Thursday at a 100th birthday party and retirement celebration for Sen. Thurmond (R-S.C.) in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, Lott said, "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."
Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, was the presidential nominee of the breakaway Dixiecrat Party in 1948. He carried Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and his home state. He declared during his campaign against Democrat Harry S. Truman, who supported civil rights legislation, and Republican Thomas Dewey: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
On July 17, 1948, delegates from 13 southern states gathered in Birmingham to nominate Thurmond and adopt a platform that said in part, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said yesterday he was stunned by Lott's comments, which were broadcast live by C-SPAN. "I could not believe he was saying what he said," Lewis said. In 1948, he said, Thurmond "was one of the best-known segregationists. Is Lott saying the country should have voted to continue segregation, for segregated schools, 'white' and 'colored' restrooms? . . . That is what Strom Thurmond stood for in 1948."
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, said "Oh, God," when he learned of Lott's comments. "It's ludicrous. He should remember it's the party of Lincoln," referring to Lott's role as Republican leader of the Senate, which the GOP will control when the new Congress convenes next month.
Lott's office played down the significance of the senator's remarks. Spokesman Ron Bonjean issued a two-sentence statement: "Senator Lott's remarks were intended to pay tribute to a remarkable man who led a remarkable life. To read anything more into these comments is wrong."
Bonjean declined to explain what Lott meant when he said the country would not have had "all these problems" if the rest of the nation had followed Mississippi's lead and elected Thurmond in 1948.
Lott's comments came in the middle of Thursday's celebration for Thurmond, Congress's oldest and longest-serving member. Lott followed at the lectern former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan). Initially Lott made jokes about Dole and then became serious when discussing how Mississippi voted in 1948.
The gathering, which included many Thurmond family members and past and present staffers, applauded Lott when he said "we're proud" of the 1948 vote. But when he said "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" if Thurmond had won, there was an audible gasp and general silence.
In 1998 and 1999, Lott was criticized after disclosures that he had been a speaker at meetings of the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization formed to succeed the segregationist white Citizens' Councils of the 1960s. In a 1992 speech in Greenwood, Miss., Lott told CCC members: "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries."
Asked to comment on Lott's remarks at the Thurmond celebration, Gordon Baum, CEO of the Council of Conservative Citizens, said "God bless Trent Lott."