Stumbling Out of the Closet

Are closet segregationists running America from the United States Congress? Even after Trent Lott’s resignation I didn’t believe it to be true. Lott’s vague, nostalgic reference to Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign in ’48, to me, sounded like two southern Dixiecrats reliving old times. Call me naive, but I took it as quintessential good-ole’-boy interaction.

A day after Lott’s resignation the Associated Press reported that another U.S. Congressman had expressed segregationist sentiments. Representative Cass Ballenger, a North Carolina Republican, said in a radio interview that after interacting with an African-American Congresswoman, Catherine Mckinney of Georgia, he was so frustrated that found himself reflecting fondly on the Jim Crow south. And in the tradition of American politics he apologized profusely soon after.

Lott and Thurmond apparently engage in such back-slapping antics on a regular basis. The Washington Post recently reported that Lott made identical comments about Thurmond’s presidential campaign on two previous occasions. It also reported Lott’s role in opposing campus integration, and the enrollment of James Meredith, the first African-American to enroll at the University of Mississippi.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the Post’s discovery that during this tumultuous period when many southerners resented federal intervention into southern segregationist practice, or “state affairs,” the 716th Military Police Battalion raided the Sigma Nu fraternity, of which Lott was president, and confiscated 21 shotguns, a .30-caliber rifle, and a .22-caliber Colt-pistol. The question of whether the boys of Sigma Nu were avid hunters or a quasi-Mississippi militia has not yet been answered.

Years later, after Lott had supposedly rejected his segregationist routes, the former Majority Leader routinely spoke in front of the Conservative Council of Citizens , an openly white supremacist southern organization, which projects African-Americans as the prime threat to Western civilization –among other things.

But more disconcerting than Lott’s statements and associations is the fact that the Republican Party allowed, perhaps even facilitated, his ascension to the most powerful post in the United States Congress. The recent “revelations” about Lott’s history are not secret, but public record, well documented in various southern and national publications. There is no Deep Throat in the Trent Lott segregation scandal. Lott’s associations, segregationist history, and civil rights voting record have been public for years.

Regardless of his record, critics must remember that Lott is merely one man. If Americans believe that ridding our political posts of the Trent Lotts of the world puts our country on the path toward racial equality and reconciliation, it is better that Lott remain in power as a symbol connecting America’s racial past with its racial present. In his moment of political shame, Lott serves as a symbol allowing Republicans to feel better about their antiquated, and ultimately destructive viewpoints on race. The Bush administration has been at odds with the African-American community since the disenfranchisement of Florida voters in the 2000 election, and desperately needs a polarizing incident such as this one to shift itself to the political center — not to garner the black support that seems to be out of his reach, but to maintain the support of non-black moderates who find Trent Lott repulsive.

Instead of witnessing the “outing” of an admitted former-segregationist, I’d like to see the Bush administration’s policies on racial equality yanked out of the closet. Compare the administration’s positions on minority incarceration, voting rights, affirmative action, health care, and aide to dependent children to Trent Lott’s purportedly “abysmal” civil rights voting record, and then we’ll discover who exactly Trent Lott left in that closet after stumbling out a few weeks ago.