Trying to distance himself in 1999 from the Right-wing Council of Conservative Citizens, Sen. Trent Lott wrote that he could never support a group that denigrates people “because of their race or religion.” Trying to distance himself in 1999 from the Right-wing Council of Conservative Citizens, Sen. Trent Lott wrote that he could never support a group that denigrates people “because of their race or religion.” He added, “I grew up in a home where you didn’t treat people that way, and you didn’t stand with anyone foolish or cruel enough to do so.”
Lott lied then in his letter to the Anti-Defamation League and he lied last week and again this week as he moved quickly from being the Senate Majority Leader-in-waiting to a serial apologist trying to rationalize his enthusiastic support for Strom Thurmond’s segregationist campaign for president in 1948.
At a celebration of Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Lott said: “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.”
He later claimed that he got caught up in the moment and apologized for “a poor choice of words.” Far from being caught up in a celebratory frenzy, the Clarion-Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Miss., disclosed that Lott had used almost identical language at a Nov. 2, 1980, rally with Thurmond. At the time, Lott said in Jackson, “If we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
A review of Lott’s record shows that not only has he actively opposed civil rights throughout most of his life, but that he and his family have been closely associated with White supremacy groups and ideas as recently as three years ago.
Let’s begin with his family.
After violence erupted over James Meredith’s desegregation of the University of Mississippi in 1962, some calmer White voices in Mississippi urged moderation. For example, Ira Harkey Jr., editor of the now-defunct Pascagoula Chronicle, published editorials opposing mob violence and Gov. Ross Barnett’s rabid opposition to desegregation.
Harkey’s call for non-violence was met with violence; the windows of his newspaper office were shot out by someone who obviously didn’t share his views. A while later, Harkey received a letter from a woman who told him that if he didn’t publish her letter it would prove “you are truly an integrationist and I hope you not only get a hole through your office door but through your stupid head.”
The letter was signed Iona W. Lott—Trent’s mother.
Harkey told a New York Times reporter, “I called her, asked if she’d sent it to me, and she said she certainly had sent it to me and she meant every word.”
Trent Lott was particularly close to one of his uncles, Arnie Watson. A die-hard segregationist even into his 90s, Watson headed the Carroll County, Miss., chapter of the White Citizens Councils and was elected to the board of its successor White supremacy organization, the Council of Conservative Citizens.
So, Lott, who graduated from an all-White high school in Pascagoula, was walking in familiar territory when as a student at Old Miss, he opposed efforts to desegregate the university and his fraternity, Sigma Nu. In a 1997 interview with Time magazine, he would acknowledge, “Yes, you could say that I favored segregation then.”
After graduation from law school, Lott began working for Rep. William L. Colmer, an arch segregationist from Mississippi. When he retired, Lott succeeded him in 1972. His first piece of legislation was an anti-busing bill.
Not all segregationists remained chained to the past. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas probably did more to advance the causes of African Americans than any other president. Hugo Black, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, threw off his white sheets and became one of the most liberal members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
But Trent Lott, who receives an F each year on the NAACP’s civil rights report card, has shown no such growth.
Lott—who said in 1998 that