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A Lott to Consider

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[On Dec. 20, as BLACKlines went to press, Trent Lott did decide to remove himself as Senate Majority Leader.]

Trent Lott's most recent celebration of Strom Thurmond's blatantly segregationist 1948 presidential campaign--in which he said Americans would now be better off if the country had embraced a segregationist presidential candidate--should disqualify Lott from leading the United States Senate, according to many civil-rights groups.

"It is a national embarrassment to have Trent Lott leading the U.S. Senate," said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. "His recent statements are not an aberration but the culmination of a career of consistently opposing key civil rights principles and protections, even when people like Strom Thurmond sometimes supported them. Americans deserve better leadership at the beginning of the 21st Century."

"If President Bush's claim to be a 'uniter not a divider' has any credibility whatsoever, he will ask Trent Lott to step down as the Republican leader in the Senate," said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. "If Lott doesn't resign his leadership post, senators should elect a new Majority Leader. This is the time for moral leadership and courage from the President and Republican and Democratic senators."

In his recent apology, Lott claimed that "a poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past," even though he made nearly the identical statement about Thurmond's campaign at a political rally in Mississippi in 1980. In fact, a review of crucial votes and public actions over the past quarter of a century makes it clear that while Thurmond is no civil-rights champion, his record reflects improved positions on civil rights and related issues. Unfortunately, Lott's record does not show the same improvement; instead it reflects a consistent pattern of opposition to civil rights.

Neas pointed to several crucial votes in which Thurmond and Lott were on opposite sides of issues with important substantive and symbolic importance:

-- In 2001, Lott cast the only vote against the confirmation of Judge Roger Gregory, the first African American judge ever seated on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Thurmond voted for Gregory.

-- In 1983, Lott voted against creating a federal holiday for civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Thurmond voted for the holiday. -- In 1982, Lott voted against the Voting Rights Act extension, which Neas called "the most important civil-rights vote in the 1980s." Thurmond supported it.

-- In 1978, Lott voted against the 1978 District of Columbia Voting Rights Constitutional Amendment. Thurmond voted with the two-thirds majorities in both houses that passed the amendment, which eventually failed to win approval in enough states.

Neas noted that in the 1980s, Lott was the leading congressional champion of Bob Jones University, personally mounting a campaign for a reversal of government policy against tax exemptions for schools that practice racial discrimination. Then the House Republican Whip, Lott successfully urged President Reagan and other administration officials to shift longstanding policy and allow exemptions for discriminatory schools. Lott also filed a 1981 amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the IRS had no right to deny Bob Jones University or other religious schools a tax exemption based on racially discriminatory policies. The Supreme Court, by an 8 to 1 vote, rejected Lott's position.

In the 1990s, Lott was a speaker at Council of Conservative Citizens meetings. The CCC is a successor to the segregationist White Citizens' Councils. Lott's recent remarks that the country would have been better off if it had endorsed Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign echoed his 1992 remarks to a CCC meeting that "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries." Although Lott tried to distance himself from the CCC in 1998 when controversy over the group broke into the press, in fact the groups' newsletters routinely ran his columns in the 1990s; the Summer 1997 issue features a photo of Lott "meeting privately" with CCC leaders.

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