Sen. Trent Lott's apologies for endorsing the Dixiecrat movement of 1948 is not the first time the Republican leader has had to back away from remarks that demonstrate his affinity for the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and its segregationist heritage.
In 1981, when Lott was a ranking conservative congressman from Mississippi, he managed to embarrass President Ronald Reagan by encouraging the administration to reverse a government policy that denied tax-exempt status to private schools practicing racial discrimination. The policy, Lott said in a letter to the president, penalized many GOP benefactors. Not to mention racists in his constituency. Or Southern Baptists.
Lott, who is a Baptist, contacted Reagan on behalf of a church school in Mississippi, one of the institutions known in the state as "seg academies."
The schools, often set up under the auspices of local Baptist congregations, were designed to provide a haven for white students fleeing the public schools after a wave of desegregation orders in the 1960s.
Mississippi was the last stronghold of segregation. The state resisted school integration for eight years and when it came to the University of Mississippi where Lott was a student, the state exploded in fury.
To benefit the "seg academies," the congressman urged Reagan to intervene on behalf of tax exemptions for the private schools.
"I think we should," the president noted in the margin of Lott's letter.
Within days, the Justice Department joined with Bob Jones University, an all-white, fundamentalist college in South Carolina, in a court action designed to give segregated schools a tax exemption. The public reaction was so adverse that the administration was forced to back down.
As Reagan scurried for cover, Lott acknowledged that he had botched the case. "I regret what I did," Lott said. He also called segregation "a ghost of the past that we'd like to put behind us."
Shortly afterward, he was consorting with the ghosts. He joined Jefferson Davis Camp 635 of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and later told the group's convention that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform."
Unreconstructed, Lott elaborated on his remarks in an interview with Southern Partisan, a magazine that glorifies the Confederacy.
Lott said the "fundamental principle" of Davis, the Confederate president, dovetailed with those of the modern Republican Party. "The 1984 Republican platform, all the ideas we supported there - from tax policy to foreign policy, from individual rights to neighborhood security - are things that Jefferson Davis and his people believed in," Lott told the magazine.
Now Lott has embraced the philosophy of Dixiecrats, a coalition of disgruntled Democrats who deserted their party at the 1948 convention over the issue of racial integration. Calling themselves the States Rights Party, they ran a young South Carolina governor, Strom Thurmond, as their presidential candidate.
'We're proud of it'
Mississippi and three other Southern states gave Thurmond their electoral votes. "I want to say this about my state," Lott said at Thurmond's 100th birthday party the other day. "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."
His repeated apologies notwithstanding, Lott's remarks seem consistent with the Mississippi senator's beliefs and could have been uttered at any time in his career.
As a campus politician (he ran unsuccessfully for student body president), Lott failed to join other student leaders in a plea for reason, even as a violent segregationist resistance enveloped the University of Mississippi in 1962 during the enrollment of the school's first black.
After graduation, he hitched his political star to the White Citizens Council and supported the state's last openly racist governor, John Bell Williams, in a bitter election in 1967.
Lott was a protege of Rep. William Colmer, an archetype of the old Southern Democrats who used their congressional seniority to thwart civil rights legislation. Lott worked as his aide, then was reaped in the first harvest of President Richard M. Nixon's Southern Strategy: When Colmer retired in 1972, Lott switched parties and was elected as a Republican. Though more than 30 percent of his state's population is African-American, Lott has opposed bills to benefit blacks down South through the years. He has opposed anti-poverty programs, housing programs and once voted to make impoverished food-stamp recipients pay for their monthly allotment.
Ole Miss cheerleader
Lott's critics like to recall that he waved the Confederate battle flag when he was a cheerleader at Ole Miss. Back then, that sort of behavior was expected of a young white man. A few years before Lott roamed the sidelines at football games, his Republican colleague, Sen. Thad Cochran, had been an Ole Miss cheerleader, too. Cochran long ago put aside such foolishness. Instead of brandishing symbols of a discredited era, Cochran has adopted a moderate approach to politics. He is so popular in Mississippi that he was effectively unopposed for re-election this fall and enjoys wide support in the black community.
Even Thurmond, standard-bearer for the Dixiecrats, made peace with the black voters of South Carolina years ago.
A half-dozen generations after Appomattox, only Lott and a sad band of segregationists still stand on the ramparts of a Confederacy that exists only in their imagination. He should have resigned.
Curtis Wilkie attended Ole Miss with Lott and Cochran, covered politics for The Boston Globe for 25 years and is author of "Dixie: A Personal Odyssey Through Events that Shaped the Modern South."