A Silver Lining to a Whole Lott of Nonsense
In the week since Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott confessed to dreaming of a really White Christmas, I've been through all five of Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief. I've been in denial that the media could write so many times that Lott's words "appeared" to embrace segregation; angered when half of the rebukes (like J.C. Watts') sounded like apologies; bargained that if we got into a good debate on race and politics, we might learn something; got depressed that the story was reduced to "segregation happened, it really happened;" and finally accepted, once again, that this is just America, God bless us every one.
Trent Lott, a man who can shout "smaller government" while shoveling defense industry pork into his district, is hardly a model of honesty. Then again, is the man he praised so generously, Strom Thurmond? As South Carolina Governor, Strom Thurmond used the most powerful "n" words of the time "nigger" and "never" -- as in, never would African-Americans take a place in an integrated South.
In 1948, Thurmond ran for president on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket, which Senator Lott endorsed post-facto. But at the same time, Thurmond was paying for the college education of Essie May Washington, a student at all-black South Carolina State College. Washington was openly considered by fellow students to be Thurmond's daughter. Despite being questioned many times by several reporters, neither Washington nor Thurmond has ever denied nor confirmed their relationship. You can find more in an article from the (South Carolina) Point and in the book "Ol' Strom," co-written by Washington Post reporter Marilyn W. Thompson.
Segregation has always been a farce, morality a veil for economic gain and social insecurity. And slavery, its genesis, was the most unfair labor policy in the world, where bargaining led to mutilation or death. But during their days of enslavement, some African-Americans did amazing things.
The Capitol Dome is crowned by a bronze statue of an Indian maiden representing Freedom. That statue was cast by a man named Philip Reid, who was enslaved, and supervised some of the many enslaved people who worked on the very buildings where Trent Lott works. In fact, most of the men who built the capitol and the White House were African-American and enslaved. During the last session of Congress, House Continuing Resolution 368 (H.CON.RES.368) called for "Establishing a special task force to recommend an appropriate recognition for the slave laborers who worked on the construction of the United States Capitol." It was referred to the Senate Committee after being passed by the House, but representatives took no further action.
Now's the time. Lionizing the glory days of segregation may get Lott tossed out of the Senate leadership, if not voted out of the Senate itself. But even if he sticks around a while, let's revive the work on this memorial, and give him something to think about. Providing a positive reminder of how this nation was built will be a fitting silver lining to this ugly incident.
Email your representatives and ask for the resurrection of H.CON.RES.368. You can go to congress.org and enter your zip code to find and email your representatives. There's also a section at the top asking if you'd like to email them about Lott.
Farai Chideya is the founder of Pop and Politics.com.