Lott's amnesia

The senator says he can't fully recall Thurmond's racist presidential run. Here's a refresher course: A 1948 ballot decrying "anti-lynching" legislation, and a letter to Lott from a racist supporter.

Published December 12, 2002 7:28PM (EST)

In his latest efforts at damage control, the incoming Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, R-Miss., has professed an ignorance of his state's own history when he publicly longed for a 1948 presidential victory for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. He was, as he's told the media this week, only 7 years old.

If Lott's in need of a quick refresher course, he need turn no further than the 1948 Mississippi State Democratic sample ballot, handed out to voters by the Democratic Party in Lott's home state that year. The document makes it crystal clear that Thurmond's candidacy was, at least to voters in Lott's home state, rooted in little other than preserving the South's tradition of oppressing African-Americans -- and that included protecting their rights to lynch the black people.

The sample ballot made it clear what was at stake for white Southerners who favored discriminatory treatment of blacks. "A vote for Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman's so-called civil-rights program in the next Congress," states the official Mississippi State Democratic Party sample ballot, as provided by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. "This means the vicious FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission, created by President Franklin Roosevelt to end discriminatory hiring practices in the defense industry] -- anti-poll tax -- anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever."

Lott, meanwhile, argued on CNN's "Larry King Live" Wednesday that his remarks were rooted in his perception of Thurmond as "a man that's been very strong in making sure our country has a strong national defense, one that has spoken up for law and order to protect our people against criminal acts, balanced budgets and economic development." Morever, after news reports surfaced Wednesday morning indicating that Lott had made similar remarks about Thurmond at a 1980 rally for Ronald Reagan -- "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today," the Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger reported at the time -- a Lott spokesman said that "Lott was praising the policies of Thurmond and Reagan, of smaller government and reducing the federal deficit."

The 1948 ballot makes no references to those issues. "Every Mississippi man and woman should vote -- without fail -- we must show our full strength to our enemies," the ballot reads. "If you FAIL to VOTE you are in face casting a vote for Truman and his vicious anti-Southern program. Get in the Fight for STATES' RIGHTS -- VOTE FOR THURMOND and [Fielding] WRIGHT."

Lott could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Also, while Lott professes not to remember much about Thurmond's presidential run, he was able to recall, during Wednesday night's interview on CNN, that "one of the things that people don't even, you know, remember is that [Thurmond's] running mate was a guy named Fielding Wright from my state." According to the 1992 book "Mississippi Government and Politics: Modernizers versus Traditionalists," Wright, as Mississippi governor, "put the authority of state government behind the defense of white supremacy in his 1948 Inaugural Address when he declared 'vital principles and eternal truths transcend party lines and the day is now at hand when determined action must be taken.'"

While Lott has apologized for his remarks last week, the affair has drawn increasing criticism not only from the political left -- the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP and a wide array of Democratic '04 wannabes -- but from the political right as well, including President Bush, the Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Family Research Council. It has also prompted the rediscovery of other questionable acts from Lott's career, from his friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Bob Jones University, then accused of practicing racial discrimination, to his past relationship to racist organizations like the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Lott now has even found critics on the conservative fringe -- who also find his claims of ignorance about Thurmond's legacy difficult to believe. On Tuesday, on the racist Web site Nationalist.org, past Lott supporter Richard Barrett expressed offense that Lott would retract his remarks and try to portray Thurmond's candidacy as anything other than what it was.

"The reason that you have been elected is because you have been a segregationist, pitted against integrationists in your various elections," Barrett wrote. "Now is not the time to sound a wavering trumpet." Lott owed an apology "to the memory of William L. Colmer, once Dean of the Congress, who placed you in public life, and who was as staunch a segregationist as ever could be," Barrett went on. "I still have the photo of you, me and Congressman Colmer, when we all were together in Pascagoula, here on my wall and would like to say that I have been proud of it."

Barrett schooled Lott, saying, "You owe your loyalty to Mississippi, not the NAACP, to Bill Lord of Carrollton, a segregationist and one of your most-ardent supporters, not Jesse Jackson of Chicago, an integrationist and one of your more-vocal critics." After all, Barrett was the one "shaking your hand at your victory celebration, not Al Gore.

"Your original statement of solidarity with Senator Thurmond and Mississippi was from the heart and honest," Barrett wrote. "Isn't 'honesty the best policy'?"

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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