Some Thank Lott for Showing Racism Still Alive: Furor Plays out Common Scenario in Race Issues. (Analysis)

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002 | Go to article overview

Some Thank Lott for Showing Racism Still Alive: Furor Plays out Common Scenario in Race Issues. (Analysis)


Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter


In her newly released memoir, former Reagan-era Civil Rights Commission chair Linda Chavez recalled a pre-confirmation meeting with South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, then 81 years old.

"`You're not all that dark,' he said, putting his hand next to mine for comparison. I could just see the wheels turning--would it be miscegenation if he managed to have his way with me?"

The Strom Thurmond recalled by Chavez was the man his colleagues planned to fete at his 100th birthday party Dec. 5. Unfortunate details--his role as the feisty standard-bearer for the segregationist Dixiecrats in 1948, his 24-hour filibuster against the 1957 Civil Rights Act--were to be omitted, replaced by a one-joke Friar's Club-like roast: Whatever his shortcomings, Strom, that horny old coot, sure knew how to have a good time.

"I see so many people here today whose life Strom Thurmond has touched and some he even squeezed," said a former Thurmond staffer. Among the many events the senator never missed back home in South Carolina, he continued, was "the opening of any Hooters Restaurant." Viagra spokesman Bob Dole told Thurmond that he could set him up with his Pepsi advertising partner, 21-year-old Britney Spears. Eeech.

The party--underwriters for which included the American Truckers Association, Circuit City and Lockheed Martin--was sexist, tacky and not particularly funny (even by Washington's anemic comedic standards). But none of it was even vaguely racist, which, given the honoree's career, was notable.

Not, that is, until Mississippi's Trent Lott took the microphone.

Keeping with the jocularity of the moment, Lott noted that his 89-year-old mother was smitten by the very senior senator. Thurmond liked that. Ha ha.

Lott continued, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it." Polite chuckles from the crowd. "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 room went quickly silent. Did he just say that? Some listening to the event--C-SPAN Radio carried it live--knew that there would be repercussions, though few would have guessed now far-reaching.

The event continued, but Lott had gone over the line.

Not the taste line, for that had been violated innumerable times in the come of the event. And not the sex line, because it was understood that anyone so humorless as to have a problem with honoring Thurmond in a burlesque manner didn't have a vote worth getting.

No, he was in much deeper. "He got stuck in the American family taboo," says Precious Blood Fr. Clarence Williams, founder of the Institute for Recovery from Racisms and head of the Detroit archdiocese's Office for Black Catholic Ministries.

The pundits and prognosticators had a field day. Was Lott a racist? Did he really mean that "all these problems" Thurmond ran on in 1948 should have been settled along Dixiecrat lines? And what of his record--votes against the Martin Luther King holiday and extension of the Voting Rights Act, opposition to affirmative action, previous favorable comments about Thurmond's 1948 campaign, sympathy for Confederate president Jefferson Davis, support for segregationist Bob Jones University, cozying up to the Klan's successors in his home state?

"I'm not surprised he said it," said Sr. Anita Price Baird, a Daughter of the Heart of Mary who is president of the National Black Sisters' Conference and director of the Chicago Archdiocesan Office of Racial Justice. …

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Some Thank Lott for Showing Racism Still Alive: Furor Plays out Common Scenario in Race Issues. (Analysis)
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