Consonants And a Disavowal
The More You Ask Trent Lott About His
Ties to The White-Supremacist CCC,
the Less He Has to Say
Kevin Merida, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 1999 Page C01
he speaks, Julian Bond unfurls the refrain: "Where are the senators?"
it in Connecticut, in Florida, in Tennessee, in Louisiana, in
Georgia, in Indiana, in Virginia. Named names, too.
were there for Khallid Muhammad. Where are they on this?"
Abdul Muhammad is the former Nation of Islam lieutenant whose
hateful rantings to a group of college students were condemned
by the U.S. Senate in 1994 on a 97 to 0 vote. That kind of senatorial
unanimity is hard to come by. But who's going to vote against
denouncing racism, bigotry and antisemitism?
chairman of the NAACP wants to know where these same senators
are when it comes to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which
promotes the preservation of the white race and whose Web site
features articles warning that the nation is turning into a "slimy
brown mass of glop." Sen. Trent Lott once addressed this group's
national board, welcomed its leaders to Washington, had photos
taken with them in his office and then said he didn't know what
they were about. The CCC's directors wink and nod at that. One
of them was a county chairman of Lott's '94 reelection campaign.
One of them is his uncle.
recently during an impromptu news conference why he couldn't support
a resolution condemning the CCC, Lott's face conveyed that it
was not the kind of question he yearned for.
if anybody wants to have a resolution condemning any groups that
advocate white supremacy or racism, then we should support that,"
he said. "But when you start naming one group or another group
or this group or that group, the list is going to get to be pretty
was reminded that he was one of the 97 senators who condemned
the speech by Khallid Muhammad, in which he called the pope a
"cracker," talked of killing white South Africans, demeaned black
social commentators and labeled Jews the "blood suckers of the
was one individual, and then are we going to start doing that
repeatedly and naming individuals?"
was asked if it might be seen as hypocritical to condemn Muhammad
but not the CCC.
that doesn't seem hypocritical to me."
the Senate majority leader turned away. Next question, please.
in American politics there are stories that start small, grow
slowly, never quite die. They become nettlesome because they are
about more than a set of easily understood facts. This is one
of those tales. It's about a 57-year-old Republican leader whose
defining experiences with race occurred in the segregated South,
about the protective culture of the Senate and about how even
a symbolic condemnation of bigotry can get mired in politics.
week, for instance, the House quarreled passionately about how
to put itself on record against racism. Republicans offered language
that enveloped the universe of hatemongers but cited no culprits.
Specificity, they argued, only made racism smaller. Most Democrats
viewed that position as more strategy than heart, a ruse designed
to shield Republicans who had been tarnished by their associations
with the CCC.
brings us back to Lott.
Council of Conservative Citizens, which was founded in 1985, was
not even on the national radar screen before December, when it
was disclosed that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) had spoken before the
group. Then The Washington Post revealed that Lott also had addressed
the organization and it was reported in Mississippi that he was
even a member.
denied any "firsthand knowledge" of the group's agenda and added
through his spokesman that he didn't consider himself a member
(Lott's uncle says he paid his nephew's dues). A week later, Lott's
office was told of a 1992 CCC newsletter that pictured the senator
delivering a speech to the group's national board in Greenwood,
Miss.: "The people in this room stand for the right principles
and the right philosophy."
point, Lott renounced the group but continued to decline interviews
on the subject. The group claims 15,000 members nationwide and
its largest following is in Lott's home state. Lott had his spokesman
explain that he wasn't aware of the CCC's views on white supremacy,
that he deplored those views and that he wouldn't have anything
to do with the group now or forever more. In January, Lott put
out a two-sentence statement saying that use of his name by the
CCC "is not only unauthorized -- it's wrong." Recently he sent
the Anti-Defamation League a letter of further clarification:
of these matters in personal, not political, terms. I could never
support -- or seek support from -- a group that disdained or demeaned
my friends, my neighbors, my staffers, or my constituents because
of their race or religion. I grew up in a home where you didn't
treat people that way, and you didn't stand with anyone foolish
or cruel enough to do so."
CCC leaders in his office, the letter continued, was an innocent
act. "I have always made a point of seeing, however briefly, as
many of my home-state visitors to Washington as possible. . .
. It's just not possible to research the backgrounds of all these
folks, and I don't think anyone would want me to."
figured that would end the controversy, but it keeps hanging around.
He declined to be interviewed for this article. His press secretary,
John Czwartacki, said his boss is not eager to engage in a discussion
of his racial views. "He doesn't see what necessarily good would
come of it."
other politicians have spoken to the CCC, Lott is by far the most
prominent. As the highest-ranking Republican in the land, he has
drawn darts from the left and right. Conservative columnist Arianna
Huffington called on him "to end any speculation that he has ongoing
ties with that group" by introducing a Senate resolution condemning
it. Tom Cosgrove, a longtime Democratic consultant, established
Citizens for Tolerance, which asked the Senate Ethics Committee
to investigate Lott's CCC ties.
Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on
Civil Rights, calls the situation "deeply troubling."
issue is the continuity of Senator Lott's relationship with the
CCC and what it says about the group's access to mainstream power
and influence in American life," he says. "It's more than just
these criticisms are gnats that Lott dismissively swats away.
From his peers, in the regal setting where he makes his living,
there has been not a whisper.
is why Julian Bond has been on this crusade. It's not a huge campaign,
but he is persistent. One day he happened to be on the same train
from D.C. to Philly as Arlen Specter, and when the train pulled
into the station he approached the Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
are you going to do about Lott?" Bond asked.
about him?" Specter replied. He hadn't heard about Lott's ties
to the CCC, he said. "I'll speak to him about it."
was Jan. 16. Bond followed up with a letter and a packet of news
clippings about the controversy. Never heard a peep back.
on Feb. 12, Bond ran into Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the
Detroit airport. He asked McConnell the same question. McConnell
also said he was unaware of Lott's associations. Bond sent him
the same clippings. No response.
he's not surprised.
talk about it, for these senators, is to admit that they themselves
are complicit," says Bond. "For them to condemn one of their fellows
is an admission to them that this virus exists among them, and
they can't bring themselves to do that. And I'm not just talking
about Republicans; it's Democrats, too."
Dodd (D-Conn.), the former Democratic chairman, hasn't taken up
the campaign. Neither has Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who, an aide
explained, needs Lott's goodwill if he's to be successful with
his minimum-wage and managed-care legislation. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.)
has been busy, his spokesman says. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), who co-sponsored
the condemnation of Khallid Muhammad, is worried about being involved
in a partisan hunt for Lott's head.
Domenici (R-N.M.)? "I don't have any comment on that."
Thurmond (R-S.C.)? "What they want to censure them for?"
Coverdell (R-Ga.)? "I need to first look at it. I don't even know
where their office is headquartered at."
about Lott's association?
understanding is he didn't know what they stood for," said Orrin
Hatch (R-Utah). "He just thought they were a conservative group.
We all sometimes get caught in speaking to groups that we are
not fully aware of."
not going to take a potshot at Senator Lott on this," said Thad
did have his chat with Lott, just as he promised Bond. "And Trent
doesn't support their ideas."
why not condemn the CCC on the Senate floor?
instinct is we would give them more exposure and more publicity,"
Specter explained. "The way to beat them is on the battlefield
said he could support a condemnation if . . .
I could get all the information that is available that shows to
me it's a racist group, yeah, you bet your life. But I'd have
to have more information than I have now because I really don't
know that much about them."
let's not get into that business," said Bob Bennett (R-Utah).
you around when the Senate condemned Khallid Muhammad?
and I probably voted for it. Yeah, yeah, so, okay, I'm not being
consistent. Well, I guess on that basis I'll maybe take a look
at it. But I don't like to go down that road."
a question for Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). It is the question Julian
Bond keeps asking: Why haven't more of Lott's peers challenged
him about his ties to the CCC? "Largely, probably, because there
are an endless number of issues. If each one of us was busy censuring
each other every day on every meeting we have attended or not
attended, it would be a long day."
issue, Lugar added, "has not been a central focus for the Senate
or public life in America."
Not the House
Senate is the nation's most prestigious club of lawmakers, a place
where personal relationships are important, where members give
one another the benefit of the doubt, where personal animosity
is frowned upon. Where 97 percent of the members are white.
words, the Senate is not the House, which is more diverse and
more in-your-face. Ask Bob Barr, who spoke at a CCC convention
last year and almost got into a fight off the House floor during
the debate over impeaching President Clinton. "A bigot" is what
Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) called Barr, ready for a throw-down.
Young Kennedy was incensed that Barr had invoked his uncle, the
late president, in making his case against Clinton on the House
like that happens in the Senate. Not anymore. In 1902, two senators
got into a fight and the whole body came down hard on them. Senate
rules now state that no senator can impugn another senator or
Senate is a gentleman's (and now gentlelady's) palace. Maybe it's
because there are only 100 memberships and the terms are for six
years -- these people have to work together for a long time. The
debates are not as rigidly confined and so the speeches are more
civil. The founders conceived of the Senate as "the saucer into
which the nation's passions are poured to cool." And what subject
fuels more passion than race? Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who now has
mythical status in the Senate after 40 years, once spoke for 14
hours 13 minutes to thwart passage of the Civil Rights Act of
1964. For a long time, that's how the Senate dealt with race;
senators filibustered the subject to death.
Senate, a lawmaker's peccadilloes are overlooked until they can't
be overlooked any longer.
from the history texts: Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a Democrat,
was known as the "archangel of white supremacy." But after a while
his crude bigotry became so embarrassing to his colleagues that
it was partially responsible for the effort to deny him his seat
in 1947. Campaigning for reelection in 1946, Bilbo said that "the
way to keep the nigger from the polls is to see him the night
before." Glen Taylor, the liberal Democrat from Idaho, figured
that was enough. He called for the Senate to investigate his colleague's
behavior because it "reflects seriously on the integrity of this
expects the crudeness of Theodore Bilbo in today's Senate, but
it is striking what goes unremarked on. While senators were eagerly
condemning Khallid Muhammad's November 1993 speech, not one of
them admonished Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (D-S.C.) for telling
reporters two weeks later: "Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I
used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you'd find
these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating
each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in
was the same Hollings who had been quoted by a television reporter
as using the word "darkies" in an off-the-air interview (he said
he didn't recall using the word); who had used the term "wetbacks"
during his 1984 presidential bid; who had labeled Jesse Jackson's
Rainbow Coalition "the blackbow coalition"; who had called then-Sen.
Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) "the senator from B'nai B'rith."
a mild uproar, Hollings apologized for likening African leaders
to cannibals. But that was about as far as he would go. When told
that some black leaders had complained of a double standard in
how he and Muhammad were treated by the Senate, Hollings replied:
"Tell them if they don't like these jokes, fine."
Member Seizes the Cause
Wexler called Lott's office on the first day of February. A courtesy,
Democratic congressman from Florida was about to introduce a resolution
condemning "the racism and bigotry espoused by the Council of
Conservative Citizens" and urging all members of the House "not
to support or endorse" the council "and its views."
had enlisted Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) to help round up Republicans,
to try to make the resolution bipartisan. Maybe Lott could carry
it in the Senate, demonstrate conclusively that he was opposed
to a group whose columnists liken intermarriage to genocide.
made his pitch to Lott's chief of staff, William Gotshall.
the gentleman's reaction was 'We can't stop you from doing it,'
" Wexler recalled. "I thought he was joking."
he wasn't. Lott had no intention of supporting Wexler's effort,
a fact he would make public in time. And this is the point where
a non-binding condemnation of racism and bigotry became ensnarled
in partisan politics.
Republicans saw Wexler's resolution as an effort to embarrass
Lott and their party, whose reputation with blacks and many other
minorities is not great. Republican operatives -- and indeed Lott's
own spokesman -- began talking up Democrats' links to the CCC,
especially House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt's appearance
before a group in St. Louis called the Metro South Citizens Council.
in the early '80s, Gephardt dropped by at least one meeting of
the group, which was organized to oppose busing and has been described
as a precursor to the Council of Conservative Citizens. When the
local group disbanded, many of its members joined the CCC. During
his 1988 presidential campaign, Gephardt couldn't recall his visit
but said he didn't support any group "that expresses any kind
of racial motives or sentiments." He said he wasn't aware of Metro
wasn't the CCC initially," said Gephardt spokeswoman Laura Nichols.
"When it became apparent to Gephardt that they were the CCC, he
Wexler-Forbes resolution had 150 sponsors, including 13 Republicans.
Then came the resolution the House debated Tuesday. It was sponsored
by J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the only black Republican in Congress,
who had grown tired of "all the tit for tat," his spokeswoman
said. Instead of singling out the CCC, Watts's resolution "denounces
all those who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic
prejudice or religious intolerance."
railed that there was no generic resolution rushed to the floor
when Khallid Muhammad made his speech. "So I guess what it all
comes down to is when it's a black person who is racist it's all
right for Congress to condemn him, but when it's a white group
Congress does nothing."
countered that Wexler had never come to the floor to defend him
when "I had racist attacks made against me" in Oklahoma. Jim Clyburn
(D-S.C.) countered that he didn't recall Watts defending him when
he was attacked by the CCC.
sides in the debate invoked Martin Luther King Jr., accused each
other of hypocrisy, told stories about their own experiences with
race and left the chamber divided.
the Watts resolution was supported by 254 members and opposed
by 152, it failed. A two-thirds majority vote was required because
the resolution was brought up under a parliamentary procedure
commonly used to allow quick passage of noncontroversial issues.
race is never noncontroversial.
will continue to pursue passage of his resolution. Wexler is still
looking for a Senate sponsor for his. Perhaps he should try Minority
Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
told of Lott's argument in opposing a condemnation solely of the
CCC, Daschle is incredulous.
God forbid we single out a group that has the record it has. .
. . I think it's important for us to disassociate ourselves, to
criticize the actions and the words and the positions of groups
that have no place in American politics today. . . . And resolutions
are one way of doing it, and I think for that reason there is
some merit -- sight unseen."
why Lott continues to be dogged by the CCC controversy, it is
useful to examine the way in which he has dealt with race throughout
his life. He was raised in segregated Mississippi and never had
to -- or bothered to -- confront the South's system of racial
inequality in the 1950s and '60s.
son of a shipyard worker and a teacher who became a bookkeeper,
Lott has said that race wasn't that big a factor growing up. Blacks
and whites went to separate schools. And when integration came,
"It wasn't a big happening," he told U.S. News & World Report
in 1997. "It just happened one day, and we moved on."
was a campus leader at the University of Mississippi when federally
enforced integration triggered a riot there. It was the fall of
1962, during Lott's senior year, and the 5th Circuit Court of
Appeals ordered Ole Miss to admit James Meredith as its first
black student. Gov. Ross Barnett fanned the opposition, and when
Meredith arrived, escorted by U.S. marshals, violence broke out.
Two were killed and scores injured.
a cheerleader and head of the Sigma Nu fraternity, was returning
from a football game with Kentucky. He was not a supporter of
integration but wanted nothing to do with the violence. By most
accounts, he helped herd students into the frat house and off
campus in an effort to avoid the turmoil.
you could say that I favored segregation then, I don't now," Lott
was quoted as saying in a Time magazine piece in 1997. "The main
thing was, I felt the federal government had no business sending
in troops to tell the state what to do."
issues and politics and racial issues were not on my radar screen
at the time," he told U.S. News. "I looked back on it years later
and wondered if it had more effect on me at the time than I realized."
college roommate, Allen Pepper, said that he and Lott never discussed
racial inequality, that they felt the process of integration was
something "we had no control over" and that they were more consumed
with their extracurricular activities.
had a championship football team, to tell you the truth," said
Pepper, "and that was the thing we were concerned about."
a year after graduating from law school, Lott joined the staff
of an avowed segregationist congressman with whom he developed
a father-son relationship. William Colmer, a Pascagoula Democrat,
opposed public housing, welfare and civil rights legislation.
Lott was his administrative assistant. After Colmer's retirement
in 1972, Lott switched parties and ran successfully for his Democratic
lawmaker, Lott's legislative record makes civil rights leaders'
he represents the state with the highest percentage of African
Americans in the nation, he lobbied the Reagan administration
in 1981 to restore tax breaks to segregated private schools. He
twice voted against extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act, against
the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., against funding
the King holiday commission, against continuing the 1964 Civil
Rights Act, against numerous affirmative action bills.
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has never given Lott higher
than a 15 percent grade (the equivalent of an F) on its legislative
report card. Gordon Lee Baum, founder and executive director of
the CCC, has said his organization agrees with Lott 95 percent
of the time.
CCC's leaders describe their organization as a mainstream conservative
group that has positions not only on race, but on gun control,
abortion, prayer in school and wasteful government spending, which
is what Lott says he was invited to speak about in the first place.
have a Southern white conservative Republican," explains Lott
spokesman Czwartacki. "What's absent there is Lott expressing
some kind of hateful, bigoted view. You've got a bunch of circumstantial
things of someone growing up in the segregated South. You risk
going too far with it."
Lott knows conservative circles in Mississippi. He didn't get
to be majority leader in the Senate by being politically naive,"
says Neil McMillen, a history professor at the University of Southern
Mississippi in Hattiesburg and author of a book about the old
White Citizens Councils. "It's disingenuous for Trent Lott to
say he didn't know what the CCC stood for when he spoke before
of his disavowals, the old segregationists love Lott.
not one to apologize for the South's past. In 1978, as a House
member, he led the effort to return citizenship posthumously to
Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As chairman of his party's
1984 platform committee, he proclaimed that "the spirit of Jefferson
Davis" lives in the document of principles and positions guiding
the GOP. In 1989 he refused to co-sponsor a congressional resolution
designating June 21 as Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Day after
the three civil rights workers murdered 25 years earlier in Mississippi.
now, Trent's got to do what he's got to do," says the CCC's Baum.
"I'm not going to bad-mouth Trent. We're realistic. We're not
stupid. They're trying to bloody up Trent."
is working-class Mississippi," adds Baum. "Trent's uncle is real
would be Lott's uncle Arnie Watson, who turns 90 in June. A former
state senator, he was at one time head of the Carroll County chapter
of the now-defunct segregationist White Citizens Councils. Carroll
County is where Lott spent his childhood before the family moved
to Pascagoula. The CCC is active there now, and Watson is a board
says it was he who paid Lott's CCC dues and put him on the rolls
as an "honorary member." Lott says he doesn't consider himself
a member, but didn't object to that characterization when it appeared
in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state's largest newspaper,
just after the November elections. The front-page article featured
Gov. Kirk Fordice chastising Lott for abandoning conservative
wasn't objected to because it wasn't noticed," said Czwartacki.
said he hasn't discussed the CCC with Lott since the controversy
erupted. He used to sit with his nephew and talk politics on the
porch. Though many of the South's old segregationists have been
reconstructed over time, Watson's views haven't changed much.
are a "different kind of people and don't see things the same
way, so they can have their own organizations and whites can have
theirs," Watson says. "They should have been left in their native
country." He means Africa.
mixing races, the Lord didn't intend for it to be that way."
say the least," said Czwartacki, "Lott doesn't hold those views
and wouldn't agree with his uncle."
here's what Lott says in his letter to the Anti-Defamation League's
the most unfortunate aspect of this entire episode has been the
damage done by the CCC's misuse of the word 'conservative.' There
is nothing conservative about the exclusion of any citizen from
the mainstream of American life."
Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company