Democratic presidential candidate Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) told Fox News on Sunday that it was a mistake to have attended a picnic in 1980 sponsored by a white rights group with loose ties to the Ku Klux Klan (search) but that he did not know their true politics.
In 1971 when Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., was a conservative pro-life Democratic alderman from St. Louis he was a leader in the fight against busing to integrate St. Louis schools. Throughout the early '70s public records and published reports obtained by Fox News indicate that Gephardt also opposed a low-income minority housing development in downtown St. Louis and several other initiatives designed to advance minority issues.
In 1980 Gephardt attended a picnic of the "Metro-South Citizens Council" -- an organization that described its agenda at the time as "white rights."
The organization was initially called the "White Citizens Council" and was created in the 1960s throughout the South to oppose integration. They were known to be anti-black and anti-Semitic but non-violent. Democrats and Republicans alike have been vilified over the years for attending events by the Citizens Council -- which many say was formed by former members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Fox News asked Gephardt to explain his attendance at the group's picnic.
"I make no excuses. If I had known this group, I thought it was a local group that was concerned about busing. I regret being there, that's not what's in my heart, never has been in my heart.
"A lot of people had questions about the efficacy of busing and whether there weren't better ways to get schools to improve for all students. And that was my feeling, that we should try to find better ways to integrate our schools and help every student. But if I had known then what I later found out, I never wanted to in any way be endorsing these views that this organization apparently had."
Gephardt was asked Sunday by Fox News if opposing busing in the '70s was right:
"I think probably not. I have learned as I have gone along. I think in some cases busing did improve the situation in some areas, in some cases it didn't.
"We had busing in St. Louis and it has been ended and we are using other methods of trying to better integrate the schools. I have been a long and strong supporter of civil rights in my whole career. I led the fight to get the voting rights act re-enacted. I have been a strong supporter of affirmative action. I believe in it strongly.
"I filed a brief as a friend of the court in the U. of Michigan to keep affirmative action at the U. of Michigan, which I attended the law school. And I was one of the original sponsors of making the Martin Luther King birthday a federal holiday. And a lot of other things that I have done throughout my career."
Gephardt spokesman Eric Smith told Fox News this morning that "Dick Gephardt held an anti-busing position in the '70s -- it was not uncommon in the South it was not uncommon in the North among politicians in both parties, it was a different time."
Smith defended Gephardt's record since that time: "Dick Gephardt has a 25-year record of supporting affirmative action and other programs for minorities."
Smith said because Gephardt was anti-busing he was embraced by anti-busing groups and did not always know who was supporting him. Smith says Gephardt "did not know who the Citizens Council members really were."
Smith says Gephardt "no longer holds an anti-busing position and he no longer opposes low-income housing to help minorities, he has admitted it was a mistake and wishes it didn't happen."
Sunday's "Black and Brown" debate was sponsored by African-American and Latino groups hoping to get the candidates' views on race and minority issues.
Minorities are a very small part of Iowa caucus turnout. According to Iowa state statistics and recent polls, less than 5 percent of Iowa caucus goers are expected to be minorities. That means in some measure the candidates Sunday night were trying to appeal to an audience far beyond Iowa, particularly South Carolina.
South Carolina votes Feb. 3, and as much as 45 percent of the turnout is expected to be African-Americans.
Gephardt was asked by Fox News about the timing of this information emerging.
"I don't know. I suppose that's what happens in political campaigns. I gotta tell you, anybody who knows me, knows my record and what's in my heart about equality and freedom and giving people civil rights in the country and healing racial divisions in this country. Nobody has been a stronger or longer supporter of all these efforts in all my 30 years in the Congress.
"You know, when you're in public life, everything you do is out there. But I am proud to stand on my record. I think my record speaks for itself and I know what's in my heart and what I stand for and I have always stood for equal rights, and civil rights in this country.
"I am fighting now to get elected so that every citizen gets to vote in this country and I am fighting for capital formation for minorities. God, I think the best way to get real capital into the hands of minorities [is] with my plan to increase federal set-aside contracts for minorities so they can get a bigger share of the federal contracting process."