The controversy over incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's praise last week for Strom Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign has focused attention on the Mississippi Republican's record on racial issues. An examination of his record shows that over the past 40 years, he has consistently taken positions at odds with those of the traditional civil rights community.
Lott declined to comment for this article. His spokesman Ron Bonjean said, "Senator Lott deeply believes that segregation is immoral and he repudiates it. Many of these issues are from years gone past, some as old as 40 years ago, and each have already been addressed."
Lott has declared himself a philosophical conservative opposed to federal intrusion on state and local prerogatives. In a 1996 speech at the dedication of the Jefferson Davis presidential library in Mississippi, he celebrated the Confederate president by saying, "Most of all, he was a defender of the Constitution. He rightly understood that that document was created to restrain government, not constrain the people."
On Wednesday, Lott's office issued a three-page list of his legislative achievements in education, trade with Africa, economic development and community health care.
Under Lott's majority leadership, the document said, the Senate approved a Rosa Parks Congressional Medal for the woman who began the Montgomery bus boycott; similar awards to the nine black students who integrated Little Rock schools; a day honoring minority veterans of World War II; a resolution honoring Jackie Robinson; and a resolution creating a special task force to recognize the slave laborers who helped build the Capitol.
Some analysts of Lott's record, however, say his world view has not kept pace with the changes that other southern politicians underwent after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Earl Black, a political science professor at Rice University who specializes in Southern politics, said he "was really just stunned to see him [Lott] go back and discuss the old unreformed Strom Thurmond as a source of wisdom for the nation. It took him a long time, but the big change for Thurmond was his vote for the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. He was fully on board for civil rights. I don't know if Trent Lott ever made such a speech."
In 1979, while representing Mississippi in the House of Representatives, Lott joined a bipartisan group that supported a constitutional amendment to prohibit school busing. The proposal was rejected by seven votes.
In the 1980s, Lott voted against extending the Voting Rights Act and against establishing Martin Luther King Day as a federal holiday. On the Voting Rights Act, in 1981, he was one of 17 Republicans and seven Democrats, including most of the Virginia delegation, voting against extending that law, which struck down obstacles between minorities and polling places. In 1983, Lott joined 97 other House members, most of them Republicans, in opposing the King holiday, including then-Reps. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.).
In both cases, Thurmond voted in favor.
Also in 1981, Lott filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court to support a tax exemption for Bob Jones University despite the institution's policies discriminating against minorities and prohibiting interracial dating. The effort, ultimately unsuccessful, would also have benefited hundreds of white "segregation academies" that were established in the wake of integration orders.
In an interview with Southern Partisan magazine, Lott explained his stance on the King holiday: "Look at the cost involved in the Martin Luther King holiday and the fact that we have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving."
In his brief in the Bob Jones case, he argued that "racial discrimination does not always violate public policy," and that "to hold that this religious institution is subject to tax because of its interracial dating policies would clearly raise grave First Amendment questions."
As a senator, Lott was one of seven Republicans in 1989 to vote against $300,000 in funding for the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission. The following year, he was among four senators who voted against a bill that would require the Justice Department to compile hate-crime statistics based on attacks motivated by prejudice and race.
Lott was one of 34 senators who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which broadened the remedies available in employment discrimination and affirmative action cases. In 1994, he was one of 28 senators to vote for an amendment to prohibit federal funding of the King commission, but then voted for the bill granting the money in a 94 to 4 vote.
In 1995, Lott rebuked Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), who is black, for pressing the FBI to provide documents related to the 1966 killing of civil rights activist Vernon Dahmer to a local prosecutor. The prosecutor was seeking to reopen the case against a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi who had been freed in 1968 when a jury could not reach a verdict.
At the time, Lott, asked about the case, told reporters: "In fact, Bennie Thompson would do well to tend to his job in Washington . . . because we've got a lot of very important issues to work on that affect the Delta and his constituency, and leave legal matters and lawsuits to district attorneys and the FBI and people involved."
In the late 1980s and early '90s, Lott appeared repeatedly before a white supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, once telling members they held "the right principles and the right philosophy."
In an interview Wednesday, conservative radio talk-show host Sean Hannity asked Lott about one appearance before the council. The senator said it was a candidates' forum.
"This was not a closed thing," Lott said. "There were Democrats and Republicans there, and African Americans there. . . . Now in this case, I knew some of the people that were involved, but I also knew that a lot of political candidates were going there, and I said, you know, the things that we support in terms of opportunity for people there that I'd say anyplace else."
Lott was a student at the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s, during one of the hardest-fought integration struggles of the era, when federal marshals were called in to ensure that a black student, James Meredith, could enter despite rock-throwing students and local townspeople.
There are conflicting versions of Lott's role, especially during events in late September 1962, when white rioting resulted in two deaths, many injuries and 150 arrests.
A 1997 Charlotte Observer article said: "On Sunday night, Meredith came to campus. 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."
According to a 1997 Time magazine account of events that day, "a small band of white students publicly called for peaceful integration of the campus, but Lott was not among them. Nor was he among the rioters. He concentrated on keeping his frat brothers away from the violence, and he succeeded."
Lott told Time: "Yes, you could say that I favored segregation then. I don't now . . . The main thing was, I felt the federal government had no business sending in troops to tell the state what to do."
William Doyle, who wrote a book about events at the University of Mississippi in 1962, "An American Insurrection," said in an interview that the 716th Military Police Battalion, acting on a tip, raided the house of the Sigma Nu fraternity, of which Lott was president, and removed 21 shotguns, a .30-caliber rifle and a .22-caliber Colt pistol. Lott, according to Doyle, declined to be interviewed for the book.
Yesterday, Time reported on its Web site that Lott, during his college years, led a fight to keep his Sigma Nu fraternity segregated. While some Northern chapters were pressing for admission of black members, "Trent was one of the strongest leaders in resisting the integration of the national fraternity in any of the chapters" at the national convention, former CNN president Tom Johnson, then a Sigma Nu member at the University of Georgia, told Time.
Through a spokesman, Lott told Time: "Those were different times in a different era. Senator Lott believes that segregation is immoral and repudiates it."
Jan Humber Robertson, who was editor of the student newspaper in 1962 and now teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi, said: "As far as I know, [Lott] was not one of the student leaders who tried to prevent any violence or who spoke out in favor of integration."
She said she recently reviewed a videotape of the college football game the day before the 1962 rioting. Then-Gov. Ross Barnett spoke to the crowd and exhorted the students to oppose integration. Lott, a cheerleader, "was certainly there at that game, and prancing and cheering in support of Governor Barnett," Robertson said.
Lott's record on civil rights issues has led to questions among his critics about whether he spoke from his heart when he praised Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid.
Mark Potok, editor of the Intelligence Report for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., said Lott's comments were consistent with the ideology of the Council of Conservative Citizens.
"I think Trent Lott's politics are quite different from other Southern politicians, including conservatives," Potok said. "I think this latest episode makes it impossible to belie that Trent Lott doesn't have a racist ideology at heart."
Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University's Stennis Institute, said that criticism goes too far. "He waxes nostalgic from time to time without meaning anything racial," Wiseman said of Lott. "The fact that he was trying to make a 100-year-old man feel good on his birthday is probably all he meant to do. If you're looking for a deeper meaning, I would say that's it."