I Know What He Means
"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."
--Sen. Trent Lott at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, Dec. 5, 2002
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott's comments may have puzzled some people, but I was not among them. Nor was I surprised to read that he'd made similar statements in a speech in Mississippi in 1980. I knew exactly what he meant when he mentioned "all these problems" this month and talked about "the mess we are today" in 1980. It's not hard when you know where the seeds of Lott's words are planted.
I've spent the past three years of my life steeped in Mississippi's dark civil rights history, trying to figure out what landed my parents in a dossier in the files of the notorious State Sovereignty Commission. In my quest to confront Mississippi's past--and my own--I scanned file after file of coded speech about racial segregation. By the time I figured out that my parents were being watched not for their NAACP membership but merely because they were black professionals, Mississippi's segregationist lingo had become embedded in my consciousness. In my twists and turns through the Sovereignty Commission files, I found the words "states' rights" and "illegal encroachment by the federal government" used in place of "segregation" and "integration." Even the word "sovereignty" in the commission's name was an attempt to provide dignity to a panel that, for all practical purposes, intended to wage war against civil rights and desegregation, even if that meant spying on its own citizens.
In Sen. Lott's pronouncements, I heard that same code.
I know how it works: You never directly say what you mean. You dance around it, call it something else, in the hopes that someday whatever you say can be either defended politically or benignly denied. I believe that "problems" served Lott as a code word for the factor that race now plays in American politics. It was a means of disguising his nostalgia for the days when politics in America (and at our mutual alma mater, Ole Miss) was strictly a white man's game. Now that members of his club know how he feels, the senator can categorically deny any racist sentiment. After all, in a state that is almost 40 percent African American, he needs black votes for his political survival.
And deny it he has. While the senator has apologized for what he called "terrible" and "insensitive" remarks, he has explained that he wasn't talking about race at all, but about Thurmond's policies on defense and the economy.
Mississippians like Lott want to deny the state's racially charged past and act as if groups such as the Sovereignty Commission never existed or never exerted any real influence. But the racial demons of Mississippi's past lurk in the awareness of all of us, myself included, who came of age there as segregation's walls came tumbling down.
I wasn't really conscious of the Sovereignty Commission during my childhood in the 1960s and '70s, and I did not fully understand what it was until adulthood. But over the past few years I've learned how much groups like it and the White Citizens' Council influenced Mississippi's mind-set. They distributed books and pamphlets in schools, they sponsored television and radio broadcasts, and they spoon-fed stories to local newspapers. The state even censored certain television programs. Both Lott and I were shaped by that influence, albeit in different ways. And the group-think mentality has its origins in Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrat movement itself.
The platform adopted by the Dixiecrats in 1948 stressed "home rule" and "local self-government," and advocated defending the "Southern way of life." After Mississippi's citizens voted overwhelmingly for Thurmond and his Dixiecrats, a movement began to protect the state against the forces for integration that everyone knew were coming. In 1952, Mississippi began an "equalization movement" at black and white schools, hoping to forestall school integration. That did not work. So in an effort to maintain segregation and white supremacy, the state established the Sovereignty Commission in 1956 to keep a handle on anyone, black or white, who challenged Jim Crow segregation.
The commission's charter empowered it to "do and perform any and all acts and things deemed necessary and proper to protect the sovereignty of the state of Mississippi, and her sister states, from encroachment thereon by the Federal Government." The actions and inner workings of the commission were secret and known only to a select few. With the exception of its obsession with "race mixing" (i.e., interracial sex), the commission conducted much of its business in the coded speech that matched its charter--very much the same code delivered by Sen. Lott last week.
During the civil rights era in Mississippi, if a political action was taken in the name of states' rights, it wasn't racism--even if that's what it really was. Back then, African Americans weren't part of the state's political system: They didn't count; they didn't matter. A whole means of political discourse evolved that compounded their exclusion. What Lott did this month, and what he did 20 years ago when he uttered much the same sentiment about Thurmond in a different context, was fall back into the racially exclusionary speech that was just an everyday practice when he entered Mississippi politics.
In Mississippi, the political tradition of coded speech continues, cleverly disguising racial issues that politicians don't want to discuss openly. In 1999 I saw a political poster on a Mississippi highway proclaiming a (white) candidate "one of us for all of us." During last year's debate over removing the confederate emblem from the Mississippi state flag, opponents of the measure used words such as "heritage" and "tradition" to shield themselves from accusations of racism. More recently, in the race for Congress in Mississippi's 3rd District, Rep. Chip Pickering proclaimed that he stood for "Mississippi conservative values," a thinly veiled message that he follows the lead of Mississippi's old-line white political tradition--which, by the way, did not include black voters.
I believe Lott knows the code and used the code. He may deny it, but that doesn't convince those of us who know the code as well as he does.
When I first heard about his remark, I was reminded of a story by Eudora Welty called "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" The story, written the night after civil rights activist Medgar Evers's murder, looks into the mind of the man who fired the gun. On that hot June night in 1963, Welty believed that she recognized the killer-not as a suspect one might identify in a police lineup, but as someone who came from the same time and place, was influenced by the same events, and felt the same pressures in Mississippi society that she felt. She knew where it came from--the voice that told him to gun down a man in cold blood because of his race. She had heard those same voices echoing through white Mississippi.
Language that once implied physical violence still implies a sort of violence to the fabric of the nation, and a set of policies and attitudes that remain hurtful to most Americans. Clearly, Lott's testimonial at a birthday party is far removed from that shooting 40 years ago, but he must still recognize that the coded language of the past remains potent today.
I know what influenced Trent Lott to proclaim his pride in Mississippi's support of a segregationist. I know what made him express chagrin about all the problems that a Dixiecrat president could have helped this country avoid. As I learned from reading a Eudora Welty story as a boy in small-town Mississippi, it's easy to recognize something when you know where the voice comes from.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company