Twenty-two years ago, Trent Lott, then a House member from Mississippi, told a home state political gathering that if the country had elected segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond to the presidency "30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." The phrasing is very similar to incoming Senate Majority Leader Lott's controversial remarks at a 100th birthday party for Thurmond last week.
The Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported Lott's earlier comments in a Nov. 3, 1980, report about a rally for the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan in downtown Jackson at which Thurmond was the keynote speaker.
Thurmond, according to the story, told the gathering of 1,000 people that the country "cannot stand four more years of [President] Jimmy Carter. . . . We've got to balance the budget. Jimmy Carter won't do it, but Ronald Reagan will do it."
Then Thurmond declared: "[We] want that federal government to keep their filthy hands off the rights of the states." For many supporters and opponents of civil rights, the phrase "state's rights" stood for the right of states to reject federal civil rights legislation.
After Thurmond spoke, Lott told the group: "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."
Thurmond ran as the Dixiecrat candidate for president in 1948 on a platform calling for the continuation of segregation in the South.
A spokesman for Lott defended the 1980 remarks: "Clearly, Senator Lott was expressing his support for Ronald Reagan's policies of smaller government and fiscal responsibility."
Lott supporters cited a 1997 article in the Charlotte Observer about the integration of the University of Mississippi when Lott was a student cheerleader there. "On Sunday night, [black student James] Meredith came to campus," the paper reported. "A mob, including many nonstudents, bombarded marshals with bricks and bottles. Student leaders -- including Trent Lott, now U.S. Senate majority leader -- tried to discourage violence, but a riot broke out."
Last week, Lott provoked controversy when he declared at the Thurmond birthday celebration: "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."
Criticism of Lott grew yesterday despite his apology for last week's comments. The Congressional Black Caucus, the new Democratic House leader and the conservative editorial page of the Wall Street Journal were among those rebuking Lott.
"I'm very concerned and very upset that anybody that would issue such a statement would be in the leadership of this nation or the Senate," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the newly elected chairman of the black caucus. "We're still trying to resolve exactly what action we will take."
Retiring Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the only black Republican in the House, defended Lott and attacked his critics. "We should not trivialize the issue of race for political gain," he said.
The Wall Street Journal, however, declared: "Lott played right into the hands of opponents who are eager to paint the Republican Party's Southern ascendance as nothing more than old-fashioned bigotry." David Frum, writing on the Web site of the conservative National Review, said: "Lott's unwise words have reduced the ability of all Republicans to speak frankly about race and racial problems."
Lott issued a statement Monday night saying, "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
But several elected officials remained unsatisfied yesterday. "He can apologize all he wants," said incoming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "It doesn't remove the sentiment that escaped his mouth that day."
Some Democrats, meanwhile, criticized fellow party members who had declined to denounce Lott earlier. Noting that Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) last week said he accepted Lott's private explanation that he wasn't praising racial segregation, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said yesterday: "The Democratic leadership must show its African American constituents that they really do care. . . . And I think Daschle didn't do that."
Daschle issued a statement yesterday, saying, "Regardless of how [Lott] intended his statement to be interpreted, it was wrong to say, and I strongly disagree with it."