Accessibility links

Breaking News

Senator's Comments Open Historic Wounds over Segregation - 2002-12-18

The political firestorm over comments made by U.S. Republican Senate leader Trent Lott widely seen as endorsing segregation continues despite the embattled Senator's repeated apologies. The controversy has prompted a fresh examination of a dark chapter in American politics one in which racism played a key role.

The current controversy involves remarks Senator Lott made earlier this month at a celebration marking the 100th birthday of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

Mr. Lott said the nation would have been better off if it had elected Mr. Thurmond president when he ran as a segregationist candidate in 1948.

That year was a turning point in American politics.

Mr. Thurmond had broken with the Democratic Party over President Truman's expansion of civil rights for black Americans. Mr. Thurmond ran for President as the nominee for a third party, the Dixiecrats or States' Rights Party, promising to uphold segregation.

"There are not enough troops in the Army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches," he said.

Although Harry Truman narrowly defeated Republican Thomas Dewey in the election, Mr. Thurmond, who later became a Republican, succeeded in winning four southern states.

His presidential bid began a political upheaval that slowly transformed the south as a Democratic stronghold into a Republican base. Racial discrimination was a key tool in crafting that transformation.

"Until that time, most southern whites were Democrats," says political scientist Phil Klinkner, of Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. "The South was considered solidly Democratic, but northern Democrats became increasingly liberal on race issues, and southern Democrats became concerned that the party was moving away from them, and therefore people like Thurmond began to run splinter movements away from the Democratic party," he said.

"In 1948, it was into a third party, but then you began to see it through the 1950s and 1960s that more and more southern whites began to move into the Republican party. Today the turnabout has been almost complete in that most, or the vast majority of southern whites consider themselves to be Republicans now," Mr. Klinker said. Historians note that Republicans were not the only ones with segregationists among their ranks. Even though the Democratic Party was the first to embrace the civil rights movement, it also had members who favored segregation.

Merle Black is a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He says, "The Democratic party until the 1960s, through the first half of the 20th century and extending into the second half, the Democratic Party was the party of white supremacy in American politics. The southern Democrats put all their resources into a national party, and they controlled racial policies of the United States in a segregationist direction for many, many years," he said.

As the political winds began to change, southern politicians softened their rhetoric on race.

Observers say these politicians abandoned overtly racist language that would anger moderate voters in favor of code words or phrases that would appeal to conservative whites who were uncomfortable with changes brought about by the civil rights movement.

"So they will not use racist language, they do not call into question the Civil Rights Act, and things like that," said Professor Phil Klinkner of Hamilton College in New York. "But they will often have discussions about our values and they will use the language of states' rights and conservatism, which most southern whites and conservatives around the country now interpret as a language supportive of white interests as opposed to the political interests of blacks," he said.

It is something Mr. Lott's critics accuse him of doing when he defends his votes opposing civil rights legislation. Mr. Lott says he voted against the Voting Rights Act, which struck down obstacles between minorities and polling places, because it only applied to one region, not the whole nation. He also says he voted against the creation of a national holiday in honor of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., because he thought it would be too financially expensive for the country.

Critics say Mr. Lott's voting record on civil rights shows that his views on race have not changed since the time he was a student at the University of Mississippi, fighting against the integration of his fraternity. These critics note that Senator Thurmond voted in favor of the King holiday and the Voting Rights Act.

Senate Republicans, who are concerned the controversy over Mr. Lott will distract from their agenda, are to decide on January 6 whether to oust him as their leader.