Lincoln Defends Criticism of Lott

December 17, 2002
Posted at: 6:02 p.m. CDT

Updated at: 7:00 p.m. CDT

JONESBORO -- Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln says she sees "no distinction" between the December 5 statements by Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott and those made in March 2001 by West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd.

Lincoln, in an address to national oil and gas producers in Little Rock on Monday, said that if Lott were a Democrat, he would have to go. She claimed that under the same circumstances, she would be very comfortable with asking a Democrat to forego taking leadership of the Senate.

"I believe there is no distinction between the recent remarks by Senator Lott and the words spoken by Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd in March, 2001," Lincoln told KAIT on Tuesday. "They are equally repugnant and I reject them."

On March 4, 2001, in an interview on Fox News Sunday, Byrd used the term "white nigger" in reference to whites who are opposed to equal rights. Byrd commented during the interview that race relations are now "much, much better than they've been in my lifetime." He expanded his comment by saying: "There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time; I'm going to use that word."

Byrd, who held the position of Senate Majority Leader for ten years ending in 1988, later issued a statement apologizing for his remark.

Soon after Byrd's television comments, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume denounced the West Virginian's comments as "both repulsive and revealing," and, "suggests that any progress Byrd has made on race is relative."

"The Senate Majority leader is the leading voice of policy in the U.S. Senate and should be a voice untainted by racism and bigotry," Lincoln said. "Senator Byrd held the largely symbolic office of President Pro Tempore and immediately apologized for his remarks.

On June 6, 2001, following the decision by then Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont to become an Independent and give Democrats control of the Senate, Lincoln voted to elect Byrd as Pro Tempore of the Senate, a position that Byrd continues to hold, and places him third in the line of presidential succession.

"I'm sure that had Senator Byrd had been Senate Majority Leader at the time, his remarks would have been more closely scrutinized by the media as well as by his colleagues," Lincoln said.

As a 24-year-old, Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1942. In a 1945 letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, Byrd vowed that he would "never submit to fight beneath that banner (the American flag) with a Negro by my side,"

Lott, at a celebration of the 100th birthday of Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, said that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had won the 1948 presidential election, referencing Lott's home state of Mississippi's support for Thurmond.

"When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him," Lott told those attending the celebration. "We are proud of it."

To that, the invitation-only crowd of Republican supporters applauded and laughed.

Then Lott continued, "If the rest of the country followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems."

In 1948, Thurmond ran for the presidency as a self-described "Dixiecrat" on a segregationist platform. In his campaign, he vowed that "all the laws of Washington and the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches ..."

Thurmond won the 39 electoral votes of South Carolina, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Later on, he recanted his segregationist views.

In a December 12 statement, Lincoln took the Minority Leader to task over his remarks.

"The sentiments expressed by Senator Lott's words last week have no place in today's America," Lincoln said. "If he truly believes that a Strom Thurmond Presidency would have been good for the country, then he is out of touch with the U.S. Senate and certainly with a great majority of Americans.

"Racism and bigotry once divided America and we cannot tolerate words that might send us there again," she added.

Lott has went on to apologize on numerous occasions for his comments, even appearing on the Black Entertainment Television cable channel on Monday.

"I accept the fact that I made a terrible mistake, used horrible words, caused hurt," Lott said during the 30-minute interview. "But it is about actions more than words. As majority leader I can move an agenda that would hopefully be helpful to African Americans and minorities of all kinds and all Americans."

Senate Republicans have called a January 6 meeting to discuss Lott's remarks and his future as the party leader in the upper house. The 108th Congress begins on January 7, 2003.