Published December 17, 2002
NEW YORK – Senate Republican leader Trent Lott gave a 30-minute interview to Black Entertainment Television Monday in his latest effort to tamp the maelstrom arising from remarks the Mississippi senator made implying warm feelings for the segregation era.
"I accept the fact that I made a terrible mistake, used horrible words, caused hurt," Lott told BET interviewer Ed Gordon.
Lott defended his standing as incoming Senate majority leader and insisted he did not need to be replaced.
"I've asked for forgiveness and I'm going to continue to do that," he said. "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."
The senator also denied he is a racist.
"To be a racist, you have to feel superior. I don't feel superior to you at all," he told Gordon.
Lott, sitting alone with Gordon in a Mobile, Ala., television studio, continued to insist that he didn't mean anything racist when he toasted Sen. Strom Thurmond and said, "If the rest of the country had [voted for Thurmond for president], we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Thurmond's third-party platform in 1948 was almost wholly segregationist, upholding bans on multiracial marriages and the defense of the South from "anti-lynching" reforms.
When asked what he'd meant by "these problems," Lott answered: "I was talking about the problems of defense, of communism, and budget, of a government that sometimes didn't do its job."
"But again I understand that was interpreted by people the way it was and I should have been sensitive to that," he added. "I obviously made a mistake and I'm doing everything I can to admit that and deal with it and correct it. And I hope that people will give me a chance to do so."
Lott also announced that he changed his mind about making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a federal holiday — unlike Thurmond, he voted against it when it was on the Senate floor — and said he supports affirmative action.
"I'm for that," Lott said when asked by Gordon again. "I'm for affirmative action and I've practiced it. I've had African Americans on my staff and other minorities, but particularly African Americans, since the mid-1970s."
"You understand to have a black on your staff and to push legislation that would help African Americans and minorities across the board are completely different?" Gordon challenged.
Lott said, "Again, you can get into arguments about timetables and quotas. Here's what I think, though: I think you've got to have an aggressive effort in America to make everybody have a chance.
"Harvard has a program where one in three of their students are alumni children. That, you know, we need to balance this out more, and I think that we should encourage minorities to have an opportunity across the board," Lott said.
Lott said he had reached out to several lawmakers to push forward an agenda he said would help minorities, including talking with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., about setting up a task force on reconciliation and with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, about setting up an African-American summit.
Lewis, a veteran civil rights leader, said Lott was "sincere" in their Monday conversation and he suggested that the Mississippi senator join him in an annual civil rights tour in March through places like Selma, Ala., where police had badly beaten him during the 1960s civil rights struggle.
"I'd like to come down on his side, giving him a chance," Lewis said. "I'm not one of those calling for him to step down and give up his leadership post. We all make mistakes, we all make blunders. It's very much keeping with the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence to forgive and move on."
The controversy surrounding the embattled Senate leader began earlier this month at the 100th birthday party for Thurmond, at which Lott said Mississippians were proud to have supported Thurmond for president when he ran in 1948 as a segregationist.
Criticism from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and black leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson quickly followed, but it wasn't until last Friday that Lott made his first televised appearance.
Since then, members of Lott's own party have publicly voiced concern over his leadership, most notably Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., Lott's longtime rival for GOP leadership. Nickles was the first Republican to break ranks and call for new leadership elections, where he would be a likely contender.
Some Republican aides speculated about an effort to coax Lott from his leadership with the prospect of a committee chairmanship. They worry that a humiliated Lott could resign his Senate seat, allowing Mississippi's Democratic governor to name a Democratic replacement — and leaving the Senate at a 50-50 tie.
Senate Republicans have called a January meeting to consider the issue.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.