Lessons of the Trent Lott Mess: Silver Linings: If We Are Lucky, What Will Come of This Sorry Mess Is a Wider Awareness That Virtue Is Rooted in Squarely Acknowledging Where We Have Gone Wrong

By Cose, Ellis | Newsweek, December 23, 2002 | Go to article overview

Lessons of the Trent Lott Mess: Silver Linings: If We Are Lucky, What Will Come of This Sorry Mess Is a Wider Awareness That Virtue Is Rooted in Squarely Acknowledging Where We Have Gone Wrong


Cose, Ellis, Newsweek


Byline: Ellis Cose

Ritual apologies are, by definition, insincere and embarrassingly predictable, but few are as willfully obtuse as that offered by Trent Lott. Though not as comical as the Flip Wilson ("The devil made me do it") defense, it was equally absurd. As Lott explains it, he was "winging it." He was "too much into the moment."

The problem is that Lott has been in that moment for a very long time.

In supporting discrimination at Bob Jones University, in cheerleading for the white segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens, in standing against the Voting Rights Act, in rejecting an array of minority judicial candidates, Lott has made it clear that the moment in which he lives is one most Americans have left behind. As Ralph Neas, head of People for the American Way, put it, "Even Strom Thurmond evolved somewhat."

Last week the fact that Lott helped lead the fight to bar blacks from his fraternity while at the University of Mississippi received considerable attention. Tom Johnson, then a fellow Sigma Nu member at the University of Georgia, voted with Lott. It is a vote the retired CNN president and Los Angeles Times publisher now says he deeply regrets, and he sees that regret as a marker of evolution. That growth was spurred in part by another campus battle. In January 1961, a young black student, Charlayne Hunter, was escorted to the University of Georgia through an ugly, screaming mob. Johnson saw one classmate spit at Hunter and witnessed a fraternity brother throw a brick through her window. Within Johnson, the incidents sparked "a huge awakening." He is mystified that Lott went through the same era with his consciousness apparently unaffected.

This is not to say that Lott is a racist. That word is so loaded with inflammatory connotations as to have little meaning outside of describing the behavior of certified kooks--the kind who march around in sheets with burning crosses. Interestingly enough, the sheet wearers were also in the news last week. This was occasioned by arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court over the constitutionality of a Virginia anti-cross-burning law. Cross burning is not a form of speech, pointed out Justice Clarence Thomas, but an instrument of terror--an obvious and repugnant symbol of a century of lynchings in the South. Given Lott's efforts at spin and his tendency to defend segregationist groups, such a lesson was timely. …

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