Start with the obvious. When Strom Thurmond had his 100th birthday party the other week and the politicians were showering praise on him, of both parties, by the way, Senator Trent Lott went too far. He should not have said that America would have been better off if the Dixiecrat ticket had won in 1948. The Dixiecrats (by the way, overwhelmingly Democrat, not GOP ) were against anti-lynching laws, against voting rights laws protecting black voters, against even the whisper of school integration. They were very much in the zeitgeist of their times for the Deep South, but their ideas have come to be seen — correctly — as repellent to human decency.
So, Trent Lott made a mistake. And for it, he has thoroughly apologized. In fact, I have a hard time recollecting any politicians who have apologized as much as he has. And he should have apologized. He did a wrong and hurtful thing.
But let’s look at a few points that have not been as thoroughly looked at as they might.
First, there is no accusation at all that in his political behavior right now or in recent years, Trent Lott is a racist. He has black staff, gets black votes, and is not there in the well of the Senate filibustering against civil rights. That is, his crime, if crime it be, is not an actual act, but what George Orwell in 1984 would have called “Thought Crime.” If he were to resign, it would not be for any legislative act against human decency, but for his thoughts. This is a novel and dangerous way to approach human guilt or innocence — to punish for thoughts rather than for actions. Stalin and Hitler would understand it, but we in America usually do not.
Second, we live in a society that prizes above all acts of contrition and offers of forgiveness. This society by and large forgave Jesse Jackson (then a candidate to be) when he called New York “Hymietown” after he asked for forgiveness. By and large, we forgave Bill Clinton his extramarital high jinks after he asked for forgiveness. The society has by and large forgiven and forgotten the leftists who marched on orders from Stalin in the 1930, forties, and fifties…even though they never apologized. Surely, especially at this time of year, we can forgive a man who has so earnestly sought forgiveness.
Third, what about Strom Thurmond himself ? If Trent Lott was at fault for praising Thurmond and his Dixiecrat run, what are we to make of Thurmond, who made the run himself, was a frantic, devout segregationist and racist — and who forswore himself and became the Dean of the Senate and the toast of Washington? Trent Lott the acolyte is surely no more to be blamed than is the master he served. If the world at large can forgive old Strom, surely we can forgive Trent.
Fourth, how about concentrating on the future as well as the past? I was an avid civil rights demonstrator. I still have a scar on my back (well, really, buttocks ) from a truck running up on the curb trying to run me over or scare me when I demonstrated in Cambridge in my home state of Maryland for equal treatment of African-Americans when I was a college student. I was marching for open theaters in Maryland (not blacks in the balcony) before I could drive. But what is on my mind is the amazing progress in this country, not the past. It is a miracle that we have a Mississippi U.S. Senator who profusely apologizes to African Americans for a faulty comment instead of sneering at them as the Mississippi Senators did in unprintable terms in the not so far away days of 1962 when I first encountered racism in Biloxi in 1962.
Let’s dwell on the progress, not upon an unfortunate and stupid remark made in a moment of effusive sympathy for a very old man. Yes, Trent was a racist in his youth. So were tens of millions of others, maybe hundreds of millions. Yes, of course, racism is a terrible attitude. It is disgusting and wrong. But, yes, he has changed and in his acts, he sees the dignity of all men and women of all colors. Let’s look at that good, praise it, accept Trent’s apology, assume he can and has learned, and go on with redeeming America’s boundless promise.
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