Black leaders press Lott on his racist remark

Mississippi Republican apologizes for comment

By Noble Johns

How can a racist cracker from Mississippi even be considered for Senate Majority Leader if the Senate is not a racist institution?

Black lawmakers Tuesday labeled as inadequate incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's apology for a comment praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential bid, and the NAACP called on him to give up his leadership post.

The criticism of Lott mounted, despite his apology and despite the fact that the comment in question drew little fire from Democrats after it was initially delivered last week.

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle -- who Monday expressed sympathy for Lott, saying he believed he misspoke -- issued a written statement Tuesday, stressing his condemnation of Lott's words. One prominent conservative group also criticized Lott, but the White House signalled its support for the Republican leader.

Lott, R-Mississippi, Monday evening issued a written apology for his comment that the United States would have avoided "all these problems" if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. At the time, Thurmond broke with the Democratic Party to oppose civil rights for blacks.

"A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past," Lott said. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."

Former congressman Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Lott's comments represent "the kind of callous, calculated, hateful bigotry that has no place in the halls of the Congress."

"Sen. Lott should resign from the position of majority leader-elect to make way for another member of the Republican Party whose moral compass is pointed toward improving race relations and not dredging up this nation's poor, polarizing performance of the past," Mfume said in a written statement Tuesday.

Watts defends Lott

But outgoing Rep. J.C. Watts, the Republicans' only black congressman, said Lott's critics were exploiting his remarks for political gain.

"I think he went too far, as he said to me today," said Watts, R-Oklahoma. "I think that if he had to do it over again he would say them differently. But, no, I don't see them as racially motivated."

At the White House, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said Lott continues to have President Bush's confidence "unquestionably" as the GOP leader in the Senate.

"I think that from the president's point of view, Sen. Lott has addressed this issue," Fleischer said. "He has apologized for his statement, and the president understands that is the final word from Sen. Lott."

In comments at Thurmond's 100th birthday party Thursday, Lott -- who sprinkled his tribute with quips and jokes -- noted that his home state was one of four Thurmond carried in his 1948 campaign.

"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," Lott said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the black lawmakers' newly elected leader, said Lott initially appeared not to understand why his comments were offensive

"I'm very concerned and very upset that anybody who would issue such a statement would be in the leadership of this nation or the Senate," said Cummings, D-Maryland. "We are still trying to resolve exactly what action we will take, but guarantee, action will be taken."

Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean said Tuesday the Republican leader "made a sincere apology and stands by it, and it should speak for itself."

Daschle issues new statement

Lott's written apology Monday evening followed one earlier Monday in which he said his comments "were not an endorsement of (Thurmond's) positions of over 50 years ago, but of the man and his life." Neither statement explained what Lott meant by his reference to "all these problems."

Thurmond eventually switched to the Republican Party, moved away from his segregationist position and went on to become the Senate's longest-serving member. The South Carolina senator is retiring when his term ends in January.

Another black caucus member, Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson-Lee, said more white leaders -- "including my good friend President Bush" -- need to condemn Lott's remarks. "This sends us into a very wrong direction as we begin the 108th Congress," she said.

Lott even took some hits from allies in the conservative movement as Family Research Council President Ken Connor said Lott had done "considerable" damage to GOP efforts to woo black voters.

"Now, we do not believe that Sen. Lott is a racist," Connor said in a statement. "But such thoughtless remarks -- and the senator has an unfortunate history of such gaffes -- simply reinforce the suspicion that conservatives are closet racists and secret segregationists."

But Watts said critics could easily call for the resignation of West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the chamber's senior Democrat, because he has admitted he once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.

Byrd has said joining the Klan, as he did in 1942, was a mistake.

Daschle, D-South Dakota, said Monday he accepted Lott's explanation that he did not mean to be offensive.

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-California, said Daschle "moved too quickly to explain Mr. Lott."

"It is not enough to simply defend or to explain these kind of statements, and then at election time talk about why black Americans should turn out in large numbers," she said.

Tuesday evening, Daschle released a written statement, this time highlighting his disagreement with Lott's comment.

"His words were offensive to those who believe in freedom and equality in America," Daschle said, adding he still believed that Lott did not mean to condone segregation.

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