Democrats Should Show Outrage Over Lott's Remarks

The puzzle is not why soon to be Senate majority leader Trent Lott said that America would have had few problems today if retiring Senator Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. After all, Lott, like Thurmond, is a Republican, a Southerner, and a hard-line conservative. The stumper is why, other than Al Gore and Jesse Jackson, neither of whom holds an official position within the Democratic Party, Senate Democrats didn't leap over each other to condemn Lott. Instead, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle seemed to take Lott's statement as little more than a bumbling, harmless misstatement that had no racial overtones. In a two-sentence retort, Lott took the cue and simply said it was a misstatement and he meant no racial offense by it.

But the Thurmond that Lott touted for president a half century later is not the same Thurmond that later publicly repudiated his hyperbolic racist remarks defending segregation and praising the racial integrity of each race. It was the arch-segregationist Thurmond who stormed out of the Democratic convention in 1948 and then did everything he could to wreck the Democratic Party. The issue that sent Thurmond and his raucous band of Southern diehards through the racial roof was then President Harry Truman's modest nod toward backing a civil rights bill to end discrimination in housing employment, voting and the armed forces.

Thurmond did not smash the Democratic Party and Truman was re-elected. But he and the Dixiecrats still packed colossal political wallop, and continued their drum beat attack on civil rights. Truman waffled badly and did not fight for passage of the bill. This was 1948, not 1964. There was simply no widespread public or political support then for civil rights, and Thurmond's opposition effectively stymied the passage of civil rights legislation for nearly a decade. Despite Lott's rhapsodic contention, misstated or not, that a Thurmond presidency would have spelled an era of racial peace and harmony for America it guaranteed an era of racial violence, turmoil and strife for the country. Democrats should remember this history. And they should also remember that turncoat Democrats such as Thurmond, who made race baiting a staple of Southern life for many decades, wreaked monumental damage on their party.

The Dixiecrats virtually breathed new life into a Republican Party that had been practically defunct in the Deep South for nearly a century. The big political reversal of fortune came in 1964. Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, copycatted Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats' racial playbook, and rode hard the tide of white backlash. He opposed the 1964 civil rights bill, railed against big government, and championed states rights. At the Republican convention nearly all the Southern delegates backed him.

Despite his landslide loss to Lyndon Johnson, Goldwater firmly planted the seed of racial pandering that Thurmond and Southern Democrats feasted on for decades and transformed it into the centerpiece of the Republican's "Southern Strategy" for winning national elections. The strategy was simple: court white voters, ignore blacks, and do and say as little about civil rights as possible. This has turned the Democratic Party into a museum artifact among Southern white voters.

The strategy has been wildly successful. With the exception of the interludes of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Republicans have made the White House their private preserve during the past three decades. This was glaringly evident in the 2000 presidential election. If Gore and the Democrats had carried a couple of the old Confederate states, the Florida vote debacle would have been a minor election footnote. Gore, not Bush Jr., would be in the White House.

In the more than half century since Thurmond fled the Democratic Party in protest over desegregation, blacks have given the Democrats an ironclad majority of their vote. They give them near monolithic support not because they are madly in love with their polices, but because the Republicans have blown every chance they've had to prove that they are friends and not mortal enemies of civil rights, affirmative action, and tough hate crimes legislation. In 1998, the Republicans had a golden opportunity to loudly denounce race baiting, and extremist groups when it was revealed that several name Republicans, including Lott, had snuggled up to the pro-segregation, states rights, Council for Conservative Citizens. Party leaders did not condemn the Council. Even Colin Powell in his autobiography, My American Journey, lambasted Republicans as "insensitive" on racial issues.

The galling thing is not that Lott's half-baked, revisionist tribute to Thurmond stirred the ghosts of the old Dixiecrats, but that so few Democrats know the political damage those ghosts have wreaked on their party. If they did, they would lead the charge to condemn Lott. It's not too late.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).


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