Former U.S. Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), who later chaired the Senate’s Rules Committee, showed that racism is alive and well at the highest governmental levels. He praised the Dixiecrat presidential ticket that Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) headed in 1948.
Although racism continues, it’s just as ignorant as ever.
Speaking at Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration and retirement party in December 2002, Lott 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.”
The Dixiecrat platform, which Lott is so proud his state supported, proclaimed: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.” Thurmond, who at the time was South Carolina’s governor, expounded at the party’s convention: “I want to tell you that there’s not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.” Newsweek describes the campaign as “one of the nastiest, openly racial campaigns of modern times.”
A firestorm of criticism caused Lott to apologize for the comments. But his past actions speak louder than his purported regrets.
At a 1980 campaign rally for GOP presidential nominee Ronald Reagan in Mississippi, then-congressman Lott gushed about Thurmond: “You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today.” In fact, Lott helped convince Reagan to kick off the presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That city was famous for only one thing: being the place where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964.
Lott’s record also includes resisting integration of his college fraternity in the 1960s, beginning his political career on the staff of a passionately segregationist congressman, leading a successful effort in 1978 to posthumously restore citizenship to Confederate president Jefferson Davis, voting against a proposal to track racial hate crimes, and rejecting an array of minority judicial nominees.
Moreover, in 1981 he opposed extending the Voting Rights Act by complaining, “They are still trying to exact Reconstruction legislation and that is just not fair.” Also that year, he urged the U.S. Supreme Court to allow Bob Jones University to keep its federal tax-exempt status despite the school’s ban on interracial dating. Lott argued in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case: “Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy.”
In 1984 Lott called the Civil War “the war of Northern aggression.” During the same year, he said “the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform.” He has waxed affectionate for Davis by saying, “Sometimes I feel closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America.”
Additionally, Lott was among 34 senators who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1990. The bill would have made it less difficult for racial minorities to win job-discrimination lawsuits (if the first President George Bush had not vetoed it). And Lott fought against establishing the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday by protesting: “We have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving.”
Further, Lott has been a speaker at meetings of the racist and segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens. He told the group in a 1992 speech: “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let’s take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries.” Lott spoke before the group again in 1999.
In view of Lott’s record, it’s difficult to buy his claims about the recent statements being inadvertent. Actually, that a man with such a past can be elected to the Senate, let alone chosen for leadership positions in it, says much about racism in contemporary America.
Lott’s statements reflect the views of some bigots who think whites have a greater claim to America than African Americans. Their position is completely boneheaded.
African Americans were among the first arrivals in the New World. Except for the earliest settlers at Jamestown, their roots in America run deeper than any group from Europe. Their presence in each of the original 13 colonies invariably dates from the earliest years of settlement.
As a result, they served in the colonial militias and fought against England in the American Revolution. The first patriot killed at the “Boston Massacre” in 1770 was an African American.
African Americans contributed in every other U.S. war. For example, in seeking to be commissioned as an officer during World War I, African-American newspaperman Ralph W. Tyler wrote to the Secretary of War, saying his family had been represented in all the previous wars. Tyler documented that his brother fought in the Spanish-American War, his father in the Civil War, his grandfather in the Mexican War, his great-grandfather in the War of 1812, and his great-great-grandfather in the Revolutionary War.
During the homecoming parade in New York City for the victorious troops returning from World War I, the editor of The Outlook recognized the important contributions of African-American units marching in the parade. He wrote: “The services which these representatives of their race have rendered in the war to make the world safe for democracy ought to make forever secure for the race in this their native land their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” President Woodrow Wilson said they contributed “no little share in carrying our cause and our flag to victory.”
African Americans made similar contributions in World War II. The 92nd Division, for instance, was composed entirely of African-American units. The division earned 12,096 decorations and citations, including two Distinguished Service Crosses, 16 Legion of Merit Awards, 95 Silver Stars, and almost 1,100 Purple Hearts.
In these same wars, millions of whites fought as enemies against the U.S. Others either refused to fight for this country or deserted while African Americans were fighting and dying for it.
This was particularly the case when the Confederate rebels – led by Lott’s beloved Jefferson Davis – tried to destroy the nation in the Civil War. Martin Weston explains that African Americans “stepped forward en masse – amid mass desertions by white soldiers – either to join the Union army or otherwise give support. There were no fewer than 186,017 officially enlisted United States Negro Troops: 68,178 of them were killed in 198 battles of the Civil War. Thus, Negro slaves and troops effected their own emancipation and saved the Union for Abe Lincoln.”
Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote to Lincoln in 1864 about the performance of African-American troops. “At Milliken’s Bend, at Port Hudson, Morris Island and other battlefields, they have proved themselves among the bravest of the brave, performing deeds of daring and shedding their blood with a heroism unsurpassed by soldiers of any other race.”
Today, African Americans constitute a substantial percentage of the U.S. military – higher than their percentage of the general population. Some, such as General Colin Powell, have served in the highest leadership positions.
When judged in terms of patriotic service to the national defense, it’s clear that African Americans have as much claim to America as anyone.
African Americans have also made huge contributions to the U.S. economy and culture. Too often their contributions were inadequately compensated and appreciated.
During their first 246 years in America, most African Americans served as slaves whose backbreaking work constituted the foundation of the economy in the South. Instead of being paid for their services, they were treated as work animals, given lashes on the back, and had their husbands, wives, and children sold from them.
Many Africans didn’t even make it to those dire circumstances, because they died from mistreatment, neglect, or disease on the slave ships headed for America. Regarding the horrendous exploitation of blacks during the slavery era, Randall Robinson says “the black holocaust is far and away the most heinous human rights crime visited upon any group of people in the world over the last five hundred years.”
After slavery ended, African Americans were subjected to decades of legal segregation and discrimination designed to keep them down. Nevertheless, they made significant contributions when opportunities arose. For example, during part of the nineteenth century, approximately five of every six artisans in the South were African American.
Skill in craftsmanship resulted in African Americans creating numerous important inventions. African-American inventors included Alexander Mills (who invented the elevator), Richard Spikes (the automatic gear shift), Joseph Gammell (the super charge system for internal combustion engines), Garrett A. Morgan (the traffic signal), Elbert R. Robinson (the electric trolley), Charles Brooks (the street sweeper), John Love (the pencil sharpener), William Purvis (the fountain pen and the hand stamp), Lee Burridge (the typewriting machine), A. Lovette (the advanced printing press), William Barry (the post marking and canceling machine), and Phillip Downing (the letter drop).
Other African-American inventors were Joseph Smith (creator of the lawn sprinkler), John Burr (the lawnmower), Frederick Jones (the air conditioner), Alice Parker (the heating furnace), Lewis Latimer (the electric lamp), Michael Harvey (the lantern), Granville T. Woods (the automatic cut-off switch), Thomas W. Steward (the mop), Lloyd P. Ray (the dust pan), Jan E. Matzelinger (the shoe lasting machine), Walter Sammons (the comb), Sarah Boone (the ironing board), George T. Samon (the clothes dryer), and John Standard (the refrigerator).
Martin Luther King Jr. was correct in saying “modern America is created by dependencies on the inventions from the minds of black folks.” Note to Trent Lott: we really would have problems in this country if not for those inventions.
Historians have known that such contributions are nothing new in world history. Carter G. Woodson wrote in 1933: “Africa, according to recent discoveries, has contributed about as much to the progress of mankind as Europe has, and the early civilization of the Mediterranean world was decidedly influenced by Africa.”
That influence is probably a reason why notions of African inferiority don’t appear to have arisen until after the African slave trade began in the fifteenth century. Racist ideology was created and perpetuated in the Western world to justify slavery, colonialism, and exploitation. As Clarence Page writes: “Race, quite simply, is a political, sociological and psychological construct that was created to enable one race to dominate another.”
Today, with more opportunities open to them than ever, African Americans constitute an enormously important part of the U.S. economy. In 2000 the earnings of African-American workers totaled $543 billion. This amount exceeds the gross national product of Russia and is growing. African-American consumer buying power has increased 81% since 1990.
Moreover, there are now more than 8,000 elected African-American public officials. Many more serve in other positions in the national, state, and local governments.
Numerous additional contributions could be listed. Actor and writer Joseph C. Phillips gives several: “Black Americans’ stake in this land has been earned through generations of sweat equity. Not only did our forebears shed blood fighting in America’s wars, they also contributed food, fashion, language, music and art to its culture.”
He’s right. African Americans have clearly made critical and priceless contributions in the building and sustaining of the U.S. economy and culture.
Scientific advances continue to prove the equality of all races. Findings in anthropology, biology, anatomy, genetics, psychology, and other fields show that differences among racial and ethnic groups are merely superficial and insignificant.
In fact, the similarities are so great that questions arise as to whether there’s any sense in categorizing humanity into such groups. It’s actually the case that some members of a race are more genetically similar to certain persons in other races than they are to some in their own race.
Thus, when scientists mapping the human genome in 2000 were asked who their subject was, they said it doesn’t matter because the DNA of all the races is 99.9% similar.
Gerald Larue further explains the genetics: “What has become clear from genetic studies is that the concept of race has no biological basis. Thus, judging human beings on the basis of skin color, hair, or facial features is meaningless, inasmuch as these are merely surface distinctions and have nothing to do with the basic biology of human differences. . . . Claims of racial superiority are, therefore, spurious.”
Likewise at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1995, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Solomon H. Katz reported: “Biologically, we are saying in essence that race is no longer a valid scientific distinction.”
Oxford geneticist Bryan Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve, adds: “There’s no genetic basis for any kind of rigid ethnic or racial classification at all.” And the New England Journal of Medicine has editorialized that “race is biologically meaningless.”
Ward Connerly says he reached similar conclusions through personal experience. “When you have been in a relationship that is interracial, either dating or marriage, it gives you an entirely different perspective on race and you realize how irrelevant the lines we draw really are.”
Finally, it’s difficult to understand why people don’t reject racism based simply on their own observations and the most elementary principles of fairness. If whites are preferred ahead of African Americans, this means a Charles Manson is favored over a Martin Luther King Jr., a Jeffrey Dahmer over a Thurgood Marshall, a John Gacy over a James Farmer, a Tim McVeigh over a Booker T. Washington, and a Richard Speck over a Frederick Douglass. In other words, every white sociopath, thug, and criminal would be preferred over all exemplary citizens who are African American.
Could anything be more ignorant, irrational, and unfair than racism?
The economic and social hardships many African Americans still experience surely result from the continuing legacy of 246 years of slavery followed by approximately 100 years of legalized segregation and discrimination. Adding to the problems are lingering attitudes of racism, such as those expressed by Lott.
Thus, racism is the reason why African Americans have average incomes that are 61% of those of whites; are disproportionately in poverty, prisons, and on death row; are forced to attend underfunded, dilapidated, and inadequate public schools; have higher unemployment rates; face huge barriers to obtaining credit; have less access to health care; die at higher rates from chronic illnesses such as AIDS, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes; have higher infant mortality rates; and live on average seven years less than whites.
Randall Robinson points out that racism is also the reason why African-American males, in the courts of ten states and the District of Columbia, are ten times more likely to be imprisoned than white males who commit the same offenses. Also in those states, they serve an average of a year longer for drug offenses than white males who are imprisoned for identical offenses. And they constitute 33% of males arrested and 57% of males convicted for drug offenses, even though constituting only 15% of male drug users.
Of course, millions of other minorities and poor whites face similar poverty and injustice in the U.S., usually due to no fault of their own. There is a moral imperative – consistent with the national interest – to invest in education, health care, housing, transportation, child care, and job creation to lift Americans of all races out of poverty and give them an equal opportunity to succeed.
Hubert Humphrey, who helped establish Medicare in the 1960s, said: “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the unemployed.”
The moral duty to assist those in the shadows is made all the more compelling by the fact that millions are there due to the outrageous injustices of slavery, racial segregation, and racial discrimination.
But this moral duty won’t be carried out if politicians such as Lott are elected to the highest leadership positions in government. Like many politicians, he is either oblivious to or unconcerned about the injustices and their continuing effects.
[Some of the historical references in this article are from the book The Negro in the Making of America, by Benjamin Quarles (New York: Macmillan, 1969).]