WASHINGTON – Black Republicans in attendance at retired Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party immediately sensed that Sen. Trent Lott had made a huge mistake when he waxed nostalgic for earlier times, when Thurmond was a segregationist.
"I was flabbergasted. Immediately there was a dead silence in the room. And I turned to a reporter and said that is a scary thought," said syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams.
Williams, a fourth generation Republican, once worked for Thurmond. He said he believes the whole Lott episode may end up helping the Republican Party.
"Oh, it was a blessing. It was a defining moment for the Republican Party. It was a defining moment for me," he said.
Williams said it was defining for him because it pushed him to organize meetings in which key GOP figures like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-N.C., and Republican National Committee Chairman Marc Racicot sat down with black Republicans for what have been described as blunt discussions on race issues.
"It wasn't all glowing, it was very frank," RNC aide Chris Garrett said of the talks.
With the retirement of Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, the GOP now lacks any black congressional members. But Williams has been given assurances that there soon will be more black Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"Black Republicans on the staff of the House leadership, the Senate leadership ... black Republicans — not Democrats that you convert to Republicans — because those are not real Republicans," Williams said.
But expanding that base will be a real challenge, said several Republicans gathering in Washington to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Wednesday.
"I think they need to talk publicly about what direction they're going in with minorities," said black Republican Fred Anderson.
"I know Trent Lott was a bad thing in people's minds but we've got to go on," added Linda Softli, president of Black Republican Women.
Democrats are skeptical of the GOP's new effort, and say all Republican outreach efforts to minorities are suspect.
"Since 1980, the GOP has attempted a 'minority outreach' program in every presidential cycle, and their efforts have always failed. Perhaps if they were sincere they would have more success," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.
In response, GOP officials simply point to the state of Maryland, where former Rep. Robert Erlich has just been sworn in as the first Republican governor in 37 years. Many believe his success was largely due to his choice of Michael Steele as his running mate, the first black lieutenant governor in the state.
Post-election polling suggests some black Democrats did not support Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in that race because they felt the Democratic Party was taking the black vote for granted.
House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Texas, and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., have agreed to meet with Williams and other black Republicans later this month, symbolic because the two hour session is scheduled for the same day the president is set to deliver his State of the Union address.
Fox News' Brian Wilson contributed to this report.