Does Trent Lott Speak for the South?

Last Thursday, at a party celebrating Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, Senator Trent Lott spoke for Mississippi. During his comments praising the longest serving member of the U.S. Senate, Lott said of Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat campaign, a campaign that vigorously opposed a federal anti-lynching law and desegregation legislation, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. 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."

"We voted for him," he said. In a state where, according to the 2000 census, 36 percent of the population is black, Lott feels he has the right to speak for the whole state.

Considering the egregious civil-rights violations of Southern elections from emancipation to the late 60s, it's doubtful whether or not blacks had any voice at all in elections, especially in an election where the sole purpose of the organization of the party was to combat the proposed civil-rights legislation of the Democratic party. It wasn't until 1964, with the passage of the 24th amendment which outlawed the poll-tax that blacks could see the beginning of any realistic voting rights in the South. But, of course, by 1964, Thurmond had lost his bid for presidency by 16 years, and this country was well into what Lott called "all these problems over all these years."

What's troubling about Lott's statement -- which he described in a press release as "a poor choice of words" spoken during "a lighthearted celebration" -- is that one of the most influential politicians in this country, soon to be the Majority Leader of the Senate, hasn't been affected enough by one of the most powerful moments in American history, a moment which happened in his state, to change what he says among friends during a birthday party.

Al Gore denounced the comments as a "racist statement"; Rev. Jesse Jackson suggested Lott should step down from his Senate post. But to suggest that the attention being placed on Lott's words is merely another sign of partisan bickering is to lessen the gravity of his words. The comments of people in power are almost universally censored by their handlers, speechwriters and PR teams. The way we come to understand the true feelings behind the rhetoric of our ever-polished leaders is to see how they act and hear what they say in "lighthearted celebrations" with friends.

These are the comments we should use to judge our leaders, not the rehearsed, scripted, media-friendly, and sound-biteable comments uttered in front of reporters.

So the question begs to be answered: Does Trent Lott speak for Mississippi and the rest of the South? If you choose to overlook the demographics, which show that roughly 25 percent of the Deep South is African-American, or if you want to believe in the myth of Mammy and Uncle Tom, and think that "well behaved" blacks, had they the right to vote in 1948, would have come out in droves to support the candidate of their oppressors, disregarding the fact that the Democrats offered the only hope for the elimination of Jim Crow, then yes, he does.

But I don't believe Trent Lott is that kind of a racist. Instead, his racism is much more divisive. He is a racist in the grand tradition of powerful white Southern men, unaware and unconcerned with the real history of the region, and preeminently concerned with the narrative of white domination. When a man witnesses the battles and victories of the civil rights era (Lott would have been a law student at the University of Mississippi during the most heated years of the movement) and comes away from that experience unaffected enough to proclaim that a segregationalist president would have done this country good, we should not overly concern ourselves with his interpretation of history.

His story of the region is one that exists only in the minds of unreconstructed Southerners, waving confederate flags outside the state capitol in South Carolina, calling to keep Alabama's 1911 constitution, the longest constitution in the country which still contains laws against interracial marriage and other Jim Crow era holdouts.

In short, Trent Lott's South only exists in myth.

Fortunately, Trent Lott only speaks for that South. Not the real South. Not the South of Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Not the South where one quarter of the population is black. Not the South which has emerged from a tumultuous legacy of racial oppression to make strides toward true racial unity, where the lofty ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. are being achieved in elementary schools across the region. These are the realities of the South today.

What is unfortunate is that we continue to choose leaders who represent a myth as lifeless as a confederate monument. The challenge now for the South is emphatically to deny a voice to those like Lott who want to represent the mythology; not the reality.

Andrew Beck Grace is a freelance writer from Alabama, who currently lives and works in Laramie, Wyoming.

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