Senator Lott’s now-infamous remarks at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party engendered a national discussion about civil rights. On the one hand, Senator Lott’s offensive comments were a potent reminder of America’s ignominious racial history and the prejudice that lurks beneath the surface of American life. On the other hand, the swift condemnation that greeted his words is a tribute to the bipartisan American consensus in favor of civil rights progress.
President Bush was among Senator Lott’s sharpest critics. The President spoke clearly: “Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong...Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country.”
The President is absolutely right that Senator Lott’s remarks are not in the spirit of our country. But neither is the President’s systematic reversal of civil rights in America.
Condemning Senator Lott was a necessary but insufficient step for the President to exorcise the ghost of Senator Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign from his party and from his administration. The next step is to rededicate his presidency to the goal of advancing civil rights. The President should reexamine the decisions that his appointees have made in recent months that thwart enforcement of civil rights laws or that undercut their purpose. Senator Lott’s comments are like a scab that has been opened — President Bush must do more than regret the wound — he must heal it.
In a nationally televised address on June 11, 1963, President John F. Kennedy explained to the American people why he had just deployed National Guard troops to escort African-American students onto the campus of the University of Alabama. He said, in part: “One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”
Despite heroic progress over the four decades since President Kennedy spoke these words, it cannot yet be said that the nation is “fully free” of discrimination. This generation faces a civil rights challenge that is different, but in some ways more pernicious, than the civil rights challenge of President Kennedy’s generation. President Bush must assume that challenge.