The recent comment by Senator Trent Lott (R-MS) continues to rip the scabs off of America’s race wounds. The response to this critical moment in the political career of Senator Lott reveals the complexity of dealing with race. Many have suggested that Senator Lott’s biggest mistake was a communication error, that his statement should be considered in its proper context. He was simply trying to communicate words that would encourage Strom Thurmond the 100 year-old changed man, not Strom Thurmond who ran on the ticket of the segregationist Dixiecrat Party in 1948 and in a speech said, “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.”
However, many others have pointed out that Senator Lott’s encouragement went too far when he said, “I want to say this about my state: 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.”
When a person is in line to become the Senate majority leader, he bears a responsibility for the content of his words that takes priority, no matter the context in which they are uttered.
Many leaders within the Democratic Party have been slow to respond. Could this be because of the thorny complexity of race? For instance, Lott recently gave an interview on the BET television network, a setting that continues to confuse the issue because BET stands for Black Entertainment Television—a network targeted to African-American viewers. Some would suggest that there is a difference between the voluntary separation of racial groups due to cultural realities, which is healthy and legitimate, and segregation, which limits opportunities for one group to experience political, economic, and social power.
During the interview, Senator Lott indicated that he had changed and that this change was evolutionary. He said that maturity, experience, and learning led to his change. His answer cuts across racial and political lines because it is so common. Businesses invest millions of dollars to deal with the diversity issue because, like Senator Lott, many believe that maturity, experience, and learning are all we need to slay our racist demons. Senator Lott is by no means the first to sound the trumpet of change based on maturity, experience, and learning. These principles go all the way back to W. E. B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington.
Even though this answer was a good one, many remain skeptical of Senator Lott. Has he been forced to change, or has he truly experienced a transformation that has led to a genuine change? Maybe we would be convinced if we knew that there was something that went beyond the human framework of maturity, experience, and learning.
In this regard Senator Lott could greatly benefit from the words of the man whose national holiday he voted against. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his book Strength to Love
, said it this way:
“Evil can be cast out, not by man alone, nor by a dictatorial God who invades our lives, but when we open the door and invite God through Christ to enter. God is too courteous to break open the door, but when we open it in faith, a divine and human confrontation will transform our sin-ruined lives into radiant personalities.”
Senator Lott has recently spent time across party lines with Congressman John Lewis (D-GA). Lewis used a very powerful phrase: he said, “Senator Lott is in need of redemption.” We collectively wonder whether we have the power within ourselves to grant redemption to the deep threads of racism within a person’s soul. The Christian narrative from which this phrase is taken teaches that redemption comes at great price: death on a cross. Perhaps the eventual price of Lott’s redemption will be his stepping down from his position as Senate majority leader—but should he bear that cross alone? I believe that is the heart of the matter.Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Hudson Institute.
James A. White co-authored http://www.americanoutlook.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=article_detail&id=1690
in the Spring 2002 issue of American Outlook
, which was devoted to race relations.