Trent Lott and the Republican War on Civil Rights

"God bless Trent Lott," said Gordon Baum, CEO of the Council of Conservative Citizens commenting on Lott's now infamous remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. Lott, who said that the nation would have been better off had then-segregationist Thurmond won the presidency in 1948, was a speaker at 1998 and 1999 meetings of the CCC, an organization that the Washington Post describes as "formed to succeed the segregationist white Citizens' Councils of the 1960s." Speaking in Philadelphia a week later W. tried to distance himself from Lott's remarks. Addressing a mostly black audience of religious leaders, Bush said "Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized, and rightly so.... [T]he founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American. We must continue our advance toward full equality for every citizen, which demands...a guarantee of civil rights for all." Critics were quick to question Bush's advocacy of "civil rights for all," given, for example, his support for what Michelangelo Signorile has called "the Draconian homosexual-specific Texas sodomy law" and his vocal opposition to adoption by gay and lesbian couples. Later the same day Bush validated his critics' concerns when he signed an executive order that exempted religious organizations from nondiscriminatory hiring practices established in 1941.

Speaking to the New York Times, Christopher Anders of the American Civil Liberties Union said Bush had "accomplished at the stroke of a pen what he couldn't get through Congress in the last two years and what he calculated he couldn't even get from a Republican Congress next year, which is a tremendous rollback to civil rights protections." Senator Edward Kennedy agreed. "Under the new rule, organizations can accept public funds and then refuse to employ persons because they are Jewish, Catholic, unmarried, gay or lesbian," he said. "Rather than use the faith-based initiative to undermine our national commitment to civil rights, the president's executive order should have made clear that no organization receiving taxpayer money can discriminate in its services or its employment practices."

Bush's executive order took by surprise several groups that had been monitoring administration policy toward "faith-based" programs. Representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the American Association of University Women and Americans United for Separation of Church and State met with James Towey, the director of the White House's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, on December 9, and received no indication that the president would take action later that week. Some groups were outraged, according to the New York Times. The order undercut Republican assertions that the "faith-based initiative" was essentially a civil rights issue because money would go to inner city churches, many of which serve black communities. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, which represents 180 well-known traditional civil rights organizations, opposed the Bush plan, precisely because it removed the provision requiring non-discriminatory practices by organizations that receive federal funds.

Citing the New Testament, Glen Ford and Peter Gamble of the Black Commentator label the faith-based initiative "a monumental deception."

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
- Mark 12:40

Ford and Gamble view the faith-based programs as "transparent euphemism for pulpit-based patronage," adding, "Right up to the minute that Trent Lott reminded the forgetful about the true nature of bigotry in America, Bush insisted that discrimination against religion was the nation's main bias problem." In support of the their point of view, Ford and Gamble refer to a suit brought by the ACLU in Kentucky in 2002, which exposed a faith-based program as "political favoritism for the clergy." David Friedman, General Counsel of the ACLU of Kentucky explained, "By requiring grant applicants and recipients to be affiliated with religion, this government-funded program unfairly excludes all organizations doing essentially the same good work." "[I]n the wake of the Lott affair," notes the Black Commentator, "the GOP craves a multi-racial blessing. The time approaches when the [Congressional Black Caucus] may be forced to say out loud what each member knows full well: faith-based funding is a massive, racist assault on Black political leadership, and an attempt to subvert and cow the Black Church, itself."

Coming on the heels of Lott's expression of nostalgia for segregation, Bush's revocation of the nondiscriminatory regulations for faith-based initiatives highlighted the dubious interrelationship of the Republican party, the Christian right, and the decidedly un-Christian history of both concerning civil and individual rights. On December 23 the Washington Post reported on racist statements made by Rep. Cass Ballenger of North Carolina in an interview with a Charlotte newspaper. "[I]n some areas of the South, in Charlotte and everywhere else, there are people who get rubbed the wrong way," Ballenger said, and think, "'We've got to bend over backwards; we've got to integrate' and things like that." Ballenger also called outgoing Georgia Rep. Cynthia McKinney a "bitch," saying, "If I had to listen to her, I probably would have developed a little bit of a segregationist feeling."

The revelations of intolerance were not confined to black-white issues. Until December 27, the web site of the Guilford County, North Carolina Republican organization carried a link to a web site that referred to Islam as "one of the greatest evils on our planet."This false religion is nothing more than a barbaric occult invented by savages for savages," the linked site said. Responding to requests from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and other American Muslims, the county organization removed the link. Omar Ahmad, the chairman of the Islamic-American council, said, "It is unconscionable that a political party claiming to represent all Americans would associate itself with a site that expresses open hatred for the faith of millions of fellow citizens." Another spokesman said that removing the link was a step in the right direction, but added that he did not "sense a great deal of contrition."

Writing in the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal's online edition,, Rheta Grimsley Johnson observed:

The euphemistic pitch is so familiar, we don't even listen. The politicians speak of "conservatism" and "creeping socialism" and "traditional values" in articulating some vague manifesto for a party that has joined successfully the old silk-stocking Republicans, the rednecks and the fundamentalists.

It's not just a wild coincidence that the white voters of the South - once staunchly, unanimously Democrats - became Republicans when blacks were given the vote. Just like whites deserted the public schools after they were integrated; just like whites deserted the cities for the suburbs when blacks were guaranteed decent housing. The whites fled the Democratic Party when blacks joined.

So, no, the fact that Trent Lott slips up and uses real words doesn't shock me. What shocks me is that so many pretend that he is the only politician who feels the way he feels. To portray Trent Lott as some Lone Ranger of Racism with his loyal sidekick, Mississippi, is a joke.

Where's the outrage over the fact that Strom Thurmond - with a political past so abhorrent Trent Lott can't safely mention it - is in the U.S. Senate? Where's the outcry over that?

Where's the anger over decades of Republican courtship of any racist or fool who can swell the party's ranks and win elections?

It never was about economics, the way the politicians pretended. At least not in the South. It was about race, and the Republican Party was the party that made the right status quo noises.

Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign was overtly segregationist. "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches," he said in a campaign speech. The platform of Thurmond's breakaway "Dixiecrat" party stated in part "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."

The Republican party -- "the party of Abraham Lincoln" -- was the party of black Americans until Democrats began to push for civil rights legislation. For example, into the 1950s the Republican national committeeman from Mississippi was an African-American who lived in Washington. But in 1964, a year when three Northern civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, MS, Democrat Lyndon Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act into law. The Republican party turned away from Lincoln and moderates like Dwight Eisenhower (who used federal troops to enforce desegregation) to become what Robert Scheer has called "the refuge of eternally aggrieved Southern racists." Although 25 years later as President he would celebrate the anniversary of its passage, George H.W. "Poppy" Bush, running for the Senate in Texas at the time, opposed the Civil Rights Act.

It was during this period that the Dixiecrats, whose discomfort with the Democratic party dated back to President Truman's 1947 order to desegregate the Navy, were successfully wooed by the Republicans as a part of Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy." One of the crossovers was Trent Lott, who had been an aide to Democratic segregationist Rep. William Colmer. Colmer was one of two Southern Democrats on the House Rules Committee who opposed liberal legislation on education and civil rights. In 1972 when Colmer retired, Lott ran for his seat as a Republican, and won.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, MS, where the three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. The speech advocated states rights, and did not deal overtly with racism, but was widely viewed as an attempt to tap anti-civil-rights sentiment. Like "Poppy" Bush's reversal, though considerably condensed in time, Reagan then flew north to address the National Urban League, a leading civil-rights group.

"Poppy's" Presidential campaign used an implicitly racial message in the infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. W., too, has tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, he appointed the first African-Americans as secretary of state and national security advisor, and on the other, his campaign was complicit in intimidating black voters during the 2000 election, and Bush himself made a highly publicized appearance at Bob Jones University during his presidential campaign. BJU, which advertises itself as standing "without apology for the old-time religion and the absolute authority of the Bible," also bans interracial dating. From the BJU web site:

Does the University believe that those who choose interracial marriage do so out of rebellion against God? No. It does believe, however, that often the promoters of it do so out of antagonism toward God because they are often the same entities that promote homosexuality, abortion, and other forms of social radicalism.

In fact, it's a dirty secret of the so-called Christian right that racism played an important role in the growth of the movement. After the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools in 1953, a network of private schools sprang up in the south whose only reason for existence was to help white parents avoid sending their children to school with blacks. As a southerner, Jimmy Carter knew of this phenomenon firsthand, and as president, ordered the Internal Revenue service to require Christian and parochial schools to prove that they were not established to preserve segregation or they would risk losing their tax-exempt status. This, according to Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and currently head of the Georgia Republican party, was "the greatest spark of the movement" -- not abortion, but the Carter administration attempt to ferret out segregationist institutions.

Commenting on Reed's book Active Faith, Bruce Bawer notes that Reed acknowledges that his "faith community" was "on the wrong side of the most central cause of social justice in this century", namely racism. "The white evangelical community allowed our black brothers and sisters to be held in bondage and treated as second-class citizens for four centuries and we quoted scripture to justify it," Reed writes. "...[T]he sad record of religious conservatives on race gives liberals reason to hurl charges of bigotry and intolerance at us," he continues, although "they are wrong in making those attacks today [because] the white evangelical ... legacy of racism" is "now being wiped clean." Using the term "legalistic" to contrast fundamentalist Christianity's intolerance to more inclusive "faith communities," Bawer responds:

White legalistic Protestant churches are still segregated; white legalistic Protestant parents still send their children to private schools or home-school them so that they won't have to mix with black children....In 1996 a white legalistic church in Georgia voted to dig up the body of a dead girl from its graveyard because she was black. That remains the prevailing mentality of many such churches today.

"Christian conservatives" claim credit for giving Republican candidates the narrow margin of victory in Georgia, Minnesota, and Missouri, during the 2002 midterm election, although they lost in Louisiana. Chancellor of the Christian evangelical Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, credits Bush with turning out the fundamentalist vote. "His work brought out the religious conservative vote, which elected the people we want to have in office," Falwell told "No one in the world would deny that the religious conservatives certainly played a major role in regaining Republican control of the Senate. It's encouraging to think that if we get people out, we can make a difference every time, just like in the election of Ronald Reagan." While Democrats may have allowed concern with terrorism and the impending war in Iraq to interfere with their political pragmatism, the people Bawer refers to as "legalistic Protestants" were not distracted.

In return for their votes, members of the Christian right expect the Bush administration to promote what one observer has called "the most conservative agenda in recent American history." That agenda includes

  • Giving government funds to churches to provide social services.
  • Encouraging prayer in public schools.
  • Backing Israel without question in its conflict with the Palestinians because that fulfills a prophecy anticipating the second coming of Christ.
  • Requiring foreign governments to pass a moral "litmus test" in order to receive U.S. aid.

But the most important element in the legalistic Christian agenda is what Louise Witt has termed "the enshrinement of the heterosexual nuclear family as the paragon of public virtue," adding "Making abortion illegal is central to that goal." The assault on reproductive rights reportedly will not attempt an overt attack on the Supreme Court's 1973 Rove v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Nor do the fundamentalists any longer believe in the possibility of a constitutional amendment banning abortion, largely because polls continue to show that a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal throughout the U.S. Rather the fundamentalists will mount a "stealth assault" on reproductive rights including:

  • Legislation banning late term abortion, which the House passed in July, 2002.
  • Government-imposed limits on sex education
  • Government supported advocacy of abstinence until marriage
  • De-emphasizing the use of condoms to protect against diseases
  • Government-imposed restrictions on the use of birth control pills
  • Restrictions on foreign aid to countries that do not adhere to these standards

Under longtime abortion opponent Tommy Thompson, the Department of Health and Human services has already implemented some of the legalistic Christian agenda. The department recently removed from its web site reports on sex education, the efficacy of condom use in preventing AIDS, and information casting doubt on studies that claimed a link between abortion and breast cancer. The department has also undertaken a series of actions apparently aimed at establishing rights for fetuses. Last summer the administration set aside $1 million for a program to assist infertile couples in "adopting" an embryo created but not used during fertility procedures for other couples. Pro-choice activists worried that terming the program "adoption" rather than "donation" would be another step toward establishing the person-hood of a fetus. In October, even though Medicaid currently covers low-income pregnant women, the department explicitly included fetuses under the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The same month -- shortly before the midterm elections -- the department re-established the reproductive health committee of the Food and Drug Administration. The committee had been defunct since 1996 when it recommended approval of RU-486, a drug used to terminate pregnancies during the first nine weeks. An indication of the committee's lack of activity is that it did not even meet to approve Viagra, and now the memberships of all panel members have lapsed. The first committee appointment was Dr. David Hager, a Kentucky gynecologist who, according to "won't prescribe the abortion pill RU-486, won't insert IUDs, and believes headaches and premenstrual syndrome can be alleviated by reading the Scripture." He also believes the conventional birth control pill is unethical because it is a "convenient way for young people to be sexually active outside of marriage."

"We really have to face up to the fact that one of the key things that these folks want to do is void women's right to choose, send women back in time, and establish the family that they believe the Bible mandates, which is a male-headed family," Marjorie Signer, of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington told "We're not fully engaging the beast and fully and completely understanding what is motivating the religious right. In our analysis, they want to establish a theocracy, a Christian ethos as a political philosophy." (The coalition represents 18 denominations of Christian, Jewish and other religious groups.)

There is historical evidence to justify at least some of Signer's concerns. Reversing a tradition of opposition to government involvement in religion, in 1982 the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the country, passed resolutions supporting an anti-abortion amendment and prayer in public schools. In 1984, repudiating traditional Baptist doctrine which makes no gender distinctions, the SBC passed a resolution advocating female submission to men "because man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall." By 1989, fundamentalists were fully in control of the SBC, and have retained that control down to the present.

In 1996 the SBC passed resolutions condemning the Disney Company for providing healthcare coverage for same-sex companions and for taking other actions deemed to promote homosexuality ahead of "commitment to traditional family values." Another resolution, reacting to the Hawaii Supreme Court's ruling recognizing same-sex unions stated, " Promotion of homosexual conduct and relationships by any society is an abominable sin calling for God's swift judgment...." Yet another resolution called upon Jews to "come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved," and urged Baptists to redouble conversion efforts.

The use of the term "traditional" is particularly ironic in these contexts, because the resolutions cited violate some of the basic principles on which Baptism was founded. Two principles, termed "soul competency" and the "priesthood of the believer," assert that an individual cannot be forced to accept any doctrine or obey any minister; an individual is bound only by personal beliefs. Baptists have also historically believed in an absolute separation of church and state, which they call, not surprisingly, "Religious Freedom."

The fundamentalist takeover of the SBC has explicit parallels to the Christian Coalition's takeover of the Republican Party in the South. An observer who witnessed both recalled to Bruce Bawer:

They used to be run by country-club types. Then suddenly you'd have two buses full of people show up from a church in Selma, or someplace, and you'd realize your candidate had lost and it wasn't even close. It was five to one. Who were these people who had shown up out of nowhere? Economically, they were traditional Democrats. But suddenly they'd taken over the local Republican party....exactly how they took over the Southern Baptist Convention. They bused people in by the thousands. The moderates did a poor job of resisting it.

Commentators have suggested that the Lott incident and its aftermath have damaged the Republican party image both with minority voters and suburban voters for whom racial tolerance is important. Some observers speculated that the administration's ability to challenge affirmative action policies would be impaired. Presidential advisors were reportedly divided on the question of submitting a brief in a pending Supreme Court case in which the University of Michigan's affirmative action admissions program is being challenged. Bush's January 15 statement reflected that division, as it acknowledged "Racial prejudice is a reality in America," but characterized the University of Michigan admissions program as unconstitutional and "at core ... a quota system." The term "quota," which Bush used six times in his statement, "inevitably draws strong opposition in polls," according to the New York Times.

Critics were quick to point out that the U. of M. program, in which minority students are awarded a certain number of points toward a numerical value used to determine admission, is not, in fact, a quota system. Speaking at a five-hour civil rights forum on January 17, Lee Bollinger, who was president of the U. of M. when the suits were filed, and is now president of Columbia University said, "It is not helpful to use very simplistic and incorrect terms, as the president has done."

Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas noted "The modus operandi is to speak centrally and act from the right. The conservative constituencies won, because they got exactly what they want. And the minority constituency, who is exactly what the Republican Party is courting, get the soft words." Democrats suggested that Bush was tacking to the right politically, now, so that the issue would have faded from public perception by the time the re-election campaign is farther along. "But this is not a 'compassionate conservative' move," said Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to Rep. Richard Gephardt.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights immediately condemned the administration position. "The White House is trying to thread the needle," Wade Henderson, Executive Director of LCCR said. "It is playing to its right-wing, anti-affirmative action base, yet trying at the same time to claim it favors diversity in education." The LCCR had written Bush twice, asking that, as a gesture of good-will in the wake of the Lott remarks, the administration support the U. of M. affirmative action program. "The White House simply seems not to have learned the lesson of the Trent Lott episode," Henderson concluded. "President Bush, in letting his actions speak for themselves, has now made it perfectly clear to the country where he stands on matters of race and equality."
Undaunted, however, the LCCR plans advocacy of an amendment to this year's transportation bill that would prohibit racial profiling in vehicle stops, will lobby for adequate funding for the recently passed election reform act, and press for additional funding for the Bush education initiative.

"Bush is sending dissonant signals, perhaps intentionally," wrote Ronald Brownstein in the LA Times recently. Although he has so far not moved against federal programs that promote affirmative action, many of Bush's judicial nominees have civil rights records more conservative than those he publicly espouses. This issue will undoubtedly receive considerable attention if Bush has an opportunity to appoint a Supreme Court justice. "That's the big one," Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, told the LA Times, "If they get a firm [conservative] Supreme Court majority, it will render the progressive agenda moot for decades. This is the whole ballgame for them. That's why they are willing to make compromises legislatively or in the executive branch." Other administration policies will likely face increased scrutiny for hidden discriminatory implications, including economic policies such as tax cuts, and changes to education and health programs.

Campaign tactics may undergo changes, as well. For instance, during the recent midterm election in Georgia, Republican gubernatorial candidate, Sonny Perdue beat incumbent Democrat [] in part by promising to hold a referendum on bringing back the Confederate flag -- a tactic some Republicans now believe would draw national, negative attention.

NAACP president, Kweisi Mfume, noted that each of the candidates to replace Lott as Senate majority leader, including Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee who was eventually elected, had a civil rights record at least as bad as Senator Lott. For their records in the 107th Congress, the NAACP had given Senators Frist, Nickles (OK), McConnell (KY) and Rick Santorum (PA) "F" grades for voting against NAACP-advocated positions at least 75% of the time. Of Lott's resignation as leader Mfume said, "This is a good first step for the Republican Party. Now they've got to reverse four decades of dependence on racist elements in their base. They can do this by embracing the generally accepted remedies for racial discrimination and by replacing the rhetoric of outreach with the reality."

As to the legalistic Christian agenda, John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio warns, "There may be a backlash among more moderate voters. Clearly, the religious conservatives have an opportunity, but the margins in the House and Senate are very small, and moderate Republicans may desert and vote with the Democrats. I can see why they are so excited, but they may wind up being disappointed. Reagan talked a real good game, but he was a good politician and whatever you may think, he understood that these are very divisive issues. George W. Bush is also a very good politician. But Bush has a heck of a problem: The religious conservatives are a strong constituency and they supported Republicans and they supported him in 2000. He wants them in 2004, but he can't give them everything they want."

Other observers offer the hope that the focus on rights issues will create a climate more receptive to policies of inclusion. Louisiana sociologist Silas Lee: "Essentially, what we want to do is take the focus away from personality and make it more on progressive policies.... When these policies and programs affect minorities, they affect the larger society...."


Clymer, Adam "At Rights Forum, the Target is Bush" NY Times17 Jan. 2003

Nagourney, Adam "With His Eye on Two Prizes, the President Picks His Words Carefully" NY Times 16 Jan. 2003

Witt, Louise "Onward, Christian soldiers" 3 Jan. 2003

"Defunding The Right Rev. Dr. Greedygut" The Black Commentator 2 Jan. 2003

Firestone, David "The Republicans Try to Redefine Civil Rights" NY Times 29 Dec. 2002

"G.O.P. Web Site Apologizes for Anti-Islam Link" NY Times 27 Dec. 2002

Brownstein, Ronald "Bush and Civil Rights: Words Matter, but Actions Talk" LA Times 23 Dec. 2002

Fears, Darryl "Civil Rights Leaders Widen Attack on GOP" Washington Post 23 Dec. 2002

Johnson, Rheta Grimsley "The South's GOP isn't about economics" 21 Dec.2002

Feldmann, Linda "Lott fallout: GOP forced to tiptoe on race" Christian Science Monitor 20 Dec. 2002

Leubsdorf, Carl P. "GOP's experience with racial issues has been awkward" The Dallas Morning News 19 Dec. 2002

Scheer, Robert "Lott's long affair with racism" 19 Dec. 2002

Signorile, Michelangelo "The Gist" New York Press 18 Dec. 2002

Nagourney, Adam and Carl Hulse "DIVISIVE WORDS: THE REPUBLICAN LEADER; Bush Rebukes Lott Over Remarks on Thurmond" NY Times 13 Dec. 2002

Stevenson, Richard W. "In Order, President Eases Limits On U.S. Aid to Religious Groups" NY Times 13 Dec. 2002

Edsall, Thomas B. "Lott Decried For Part Of Salute to Thurmond" Washington Post 7 Dec. 2002

Bawer, Bruce Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity New York:Three Rivers, 1997.

See also Maureen Dowd's The Class President, and Study: Abortion Pill Under Attack from WiredNews.