WASHINGTON – Embattled Sen. Trent Lott won't step down from his position as the incoming Senate majority leader but will "dedicate himself to undoing the hurt" he has caused by recent remarks in which he implied support for segregationist policies of the past.
"Segregation is a stain on our nation's soul. There is no other way to describe it. It represents one of our lowest moments in our history," Lott said Friday during a press conference in his hometown of Pascagoula, Miss., in which he attempted to express the degree of his sorrow.
"I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them. Segregation and racism are immoral," he said.
Lott, who has apologized repeatedly for the remarks he made last week, said as a man who grew up in the era of segregation, he has seen the destruction that it can cause.
"Along with the South, I have learned from the mistakes of our past. I have asked and I am asking for forbearance and forgiveness," he said.
Lott got into trouble when he was feting Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., at his 100th birthday party last week on Capitol Hill. "Winging it," Lott said that if Thurmond had been elected president that year, "We wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either."
Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat segregationist. He later changed his views of segregation and became one of the first senators to hire black staffers.
"Let me make clear, though, in celebrating his life, I didn't mean in any way to suggest that his views of over 50 years ago on segregation were right," Lott said. "There were no venal thoughts in my mind."
Lott said that he has worked to see that Mississippi residents -- black and white -- have expanded opportunities, and wants to continue to do more to help Americans of all races live the American dream.
"To those who believe that this dream applied to some and not all, it is not true. I apologize if that is the impression I gave," he said.
Lott said he is joining prominent blacks, Congress of Racial Equality head Roy Innis and Black Entertainment Television owner Bob Johnson, in a one-hour television event in which he could further explain his views.
The broadcast will take place next week. Lott denied that it would be a one-day effort or that it was the start of a media offensive.
Whether Lott's remarks will stem the tide of growing condemnation is yet to be seen.
"Lott's basic defense is stupidity ... I don't think Sen. Lott has ever been known for his emotional connectivity," said Dr. Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University. "That's not his strong point and I didn't see very much of it in this press conference."
The criticism of Lott reached an apex when President Bush issued some stern words on Thursday, calling Lott's remarks "offensive" and not reflective of "the spirit of our country."
Lott has "apologized and rightly so," Bush told a mostly minority audience during an event in Philadelphia.
"Any suggestion that the segregated past is acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong," Bush said to a standing ovation. "Every day that our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals."
But many black lawmakers are not willing to accept Lott's apologies. The Congressional Black Caucus is calling for a censure vote against Lott and said the president needs to call for his resignation as majority leader.
CBC leadership said in a written statement, "it is astounding" that Bush hasn't done so.
"This lack of leadership underscores the insincerity of the Republican Party's attempt to court African Americans and other people of color," the CBC wrote.
"It is frightening, unbelievable and unacceptable that an elected official, the future leader of the U.S. Senate, would make a statement condoning a period of history burdened by overt racism, violence, fear and oppression," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who said Lott's "remarks were more than a case of bad judgment; they reflect a long-held mindset toward race."
Republicans, who have been backing the Mississippi senator, are very disconcerted despite public comments of support for him. They say the key question is whether or not Lott can show that he still can lead.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer attempted to step back from the debate, saying, "The president does not sit in judgment of whether or not people need to have news conferences or not. The president thinks it's important to speak to the country about the issues of race relations and improving race relations and the important advancements our country has made in terms of civil rights."
Fleischer has said, "the president does not think that Lott should resign" as leader.
Privately, White House officials said the comments by Bush, Fleischer and Lott were orchestrated to distance Bush and his party from Lott's remarks while giving the senator a chance to retain his leadership post.
Bush advisers said the president feared Lott's remarks, if left without rebuke, would undermine the president's efforts to expand his party's support among minorities, particularly blacks. They also said they tried to turn Lott's gaffe into an opportunity for Bush to soften the Republican image.
Compounding Lott's problems are recent reports of activities in his past that appear to support such a policy prescription.
Lott told Time magazine more than five years ago that he supported segregation while a student at the University of Mississippi, when U.S. marshals brought the first black student to the school.
Lott reportedly led the effort in his all-white Sigma Nu fraternity to continue supporting segregation. That policy changed years later.
Critics have also listed such past actions as his 1983 vote against a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., his 1982 vote against the Voting Rights Act extension and his efforts to restore Confederate president Jefferson Davis' citizenship.
In 1981, he quoted court rulings upholding affirmative action programs at colleges in order to defend a dating ban between black and white students at Bob Jones University.
At the time, Bob Jones, a Christian university that changed its policy following the uproar that accompanied 2000 presidential candidate George W. Bush's visit there, was close to losing its tax-exempt status.
The case went to the Supreme Court. Lott wrote a friend-of-the-court filing that said, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to strip the school of its tax exemption two years later.
Lott has also been tied to the Council of Conservative Citizens, successor of the 1960's White Citizens Councils of the South.
In 1992, Lott spoke to a CofCC group in Mississippi and said, "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."
He has since sought to distance himself from CofCC, which this week filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending cross burning as free speech. The Supreme Court heard the case on Wednesday.
As recently as Nov. 16, CofCC passed a resolution praising Lott for his support of putting U.S. troops on the border to "protect our country against the invasion of illegal aliens."
Lott, who has a 30-year career in the House and the Senate, rose to the position of Senate Republican leader and majority leader in 1996 when Bob Dole quit the Senate to concentrate on his run for the White House. His Senate colleagues re-elected him without opposition last month.
Though Lott gave a tepid apology a few days after his birthday tribute to Thurmond, news reports later revealed that he made similar remarks in 1980 at a rally for then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
He then apologized more fully.
"When I think back about Strom Thurmond over the years, what I have seen was a man who was for a strong national defense, economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity, and that's the kinds of things that I really had in mind," he told radio and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity on Wednesday.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.