Forty-five little words, Trent Lott to Strom Thurmond, Dec. 5, now forbidden: 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.

And so the senator with the perfect hair, who craves order, who re-presses his laundered shirts, found there was no way to make this thing neat. In the end, Trent Lott was simply the victim of a moment that many people, in and out of public life, are still struggling to understand.

"I thought this might be a one- or two-day story," said Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), "but it really grew and took hold of the country."

The story is about both the past and the present. Forty-five little words summoned an era that many Americans had largely forgotten or never known, and those same words have now redefined what's permissible to say today, at least by a leader in the national government.

The conversation about race in America has always been awkward or charged or just plain uncomfortable. In the vast, broadening American mosaic, honest dialogue is rare, and rarer still in public. The talk zigs and zags, from booming voices to silence. Every now and then there is a grand confrontation, some boiling controversy in which the nation owns up to truths about what it was and what it has become.

How is it that a Senate leader's bumbling tribute to a 100-year-old colleague, what he thought was just party banter, mushroomed into a moment like this?

Several years ago, Lott was caught up in a storm over his ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which promotes the preservation of the white race. There were many news stories; Lott ducked and dodged and ignored. On March 11, 1999, Tom Cosgrove, a Democratic consultant, filed a complaint with the Senate ethics committee, accusing Lott of conduct unbecoming a U.S. senator. The committee dismissed the complaint in five days, Lott's colleagues remained mum, and Lott explained his way out of that mess.

But not this time.

"I think this is actually important," said Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy. "It lays down a marker for the parameters of acceptable sentiment and opinion. Okay, are there people who believe the same thing as Lott and simply won't say it? Sure. And that's okay, too. But it's important that certain things are made verboten in electoral politics."

As Kennedy observed, "the history of racism is a complicated story. We have lots of work to do. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot of folks who don't know who the Dixiecrats are. This is one of those things that turned into a real episode of public education. A lot of people didn't know Strom had run for president in '48 on a segregationist platform."

What was it like in 1948?

Negroes made up half the population of Lott's state. Their governor, Fielding Wright, told them: "If any of you have become so deluded as to want to enter our white schools, patronize our hotels and cafes, enjoy social equality with the whites, then true kindness and sympathy requires me to advise you to make your homes in some other state." Thurmond got 109,133 votes in this Mississippi.

This is what passed for racial progress then: From 1945 to 1949, only 13 lynchings were recorded in the nation, compared with 519 recorded from 1900 to 1904.

Now, there is racial progress that was unimaginable back then: The previously white worlds of golf, finance and national security have been penetrated. In Lott's Mississippi, 27 percent of homeowners are black, more than three times the national average. And the state boasts 45 black state legislators, the second-largest black contingent in the nation.

When Lawrence Guyot observes this moment, he thinks of where he has been. In the 1960s, Guyot was chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an organizer of civil rights demonstrations, a man beaten and jailed and threatened with death by the Ku Klux Klan. The passing of time doesn't dull the memories.

"Lott stepping down vindicates our struggle to bring the federal government into our fight against people like Strom Thurmond," said Guyot, now an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the LeDroit Park community. "Lott's statement did more to galvanize the realism of racism and its pervasiveness in American politics.

"This is clearly a victory," he added, "but it is a small part of a much larger battle. This should be the beginning of an open national discussion on race."

But will it be?

Out in workaday America, there's a muddled picture about what the moment means.

"It's a huge sigh of relief that some of the worst of our history are finally in the trash can," said Clark Wolf, 51, a restaurant consultant in New York. "The country is really ready to put a lot of stuff behind it. Even some people who 10 or 15 years ago were separatist or racist have gotten over it."

But two hours after Lott stepped down, as the talk shows kicked into high gear and the cable news programs issued breathless updates, most of the people who pulled into an Exxon station in the Florida resort of Marco Island responded to his name with blank stares.

Trent Lott?

"Who's that? Never heard of him," said Alexander de Rivero, 20, an artist who lives and paints on Marco Island. "Politics doesn't interest me."

Hardly anyone who pulled into the station over a one-hour period said they'd heard of the erstwhile majority leader. One exception was a neo-segregationist dentist who did not want to give his name. He said he agreed with Lott that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected president. "He was partly right, so why can't you say that?" the man said.

Bob MacDonald, 55, an interior designer, summed up the controversy as a trivial distraction. "The country is falling apart, and we're worried about one little statement," he said.

Terri Johnson is executive director of Chicago's Human Relations Foundation, which examines systemic and institutional racism with an eye on eradicating it. The Lott controversy was interesting, she said, because it joined two constituencies who seldom see eye to eye: the old civil rights community and conservatives.

"The debate shows that we have effectively made it not okay to be a racist. But it's very narrow. It's a Bull Connor definition of what a racist is," said Johnson, an African American. "What is harder is to get people to think about the day-to-day indignities, the daily dividing lines that separate us."

She was not confident that the incident would have any lasting impact. "The reason we have yet to address racism is that we only deal with it in a crisis," Johnson said. "My concern is that him stepping down will, for many people, be the end."

Staff writers Hamil R. Harris, Manuel Roig-Franzia, Robert Pierre, Christine Haughney, Christopher Jenkins, Michael D. Shear and researchers Carmen E. Chapin and Margaret Smith contributed to this report.

A fateful moment: Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) at 100th birthday celebration backed by then-Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).