Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

A speech delivered by Mississippi senator and Senate majority leader Trent Lott on the occasion of the one hundredth birthday of South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond praised Thurmond’s 1948 so-called Dixiecrat segregationist campaign for the presidency. The resulting political fallout led to Lott’s resignation as majority leader.

Summary of Event

Trent Lott’s political rise as one of the “new breed” of southern conservative Republicans was, by all standards, exceptional. Obtaining his law degree in 1967 from the University of Mississippi, Lott won election to the U.S. House of Representatives at the age of thirty-one and served in the House from 1973 to 1989. Lott was then elected to the U.S. Senate and enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks, becoming Senate majority whip in 1995 and then majority leader in 1996 while in his first electoral term of office. He consistently held the post of either majority or minority leader into the year 2002. [kw]Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign, Senator Trent (Dec. 5, 2002) [kw]Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign, Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom (Dec. 5, 2002) Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Strom Thurmond[Thurmond] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1948 Congress, U.S.;Trent Lott[Lott] Lott, Trent Thurmond, Strom Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;and Trent Lott[Lott] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Strom Thurmond[Thurmond] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1948 Congress, U.S.;Trent Lott[Lott] Lott, Trent Thurmond, Strom Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;and Trent Lott[Lott] [g]United States;Dec. 5, 2002: Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign[03250] [c]Politics;Dec. 5, 2002: Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign[03250] [c]Social issues and reform;Dec. 5, 2002: Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign[03250] [c]Racism;Dec. 5, 2002: Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign[03250] [c]Government;Dec. 5, 2002: Senator Trent Lott Praises Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential Campaign[03250] Frist, Bill Gore, Al

Senator Strom Thurmond, seated, celebrates his one-hundredth birthday with, from left, Vice President Dick Cheney, President George W. Bush, Senator Trent Lott, and Thurmond’s daughter, Julie Thurmond Whitmer.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Lott strongly identified with the more conservative elements in Congress. He opposed the renewal of significant civil rights bills that had been passed during the 1960’s, and he assumed an active role in the Clinton, Bill [p]Clinton, Bill;impeachment Impeachment;of Bill Clinton[Clinton] Congress, U.S.;and Bill Clinton[Clinton] impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, working hand-in-hand with the Senate “managers” and casting his vote in favor of conviction. During the early months of the administration of George W. Bush, Lott served as a staunch, and often decisive, ally of the president—though one who sometimes showed an independent streak. In a great many instances, Lott’s influence and political acumen proved to be crucial, as in the case of Bush’s tax-cut scheme in 2001 and the U.S. military operations against Iraq War Iraq that began in 2003. However, during the debate over the latter initiative, Lott’s initial misgivings over the theory that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction indicated that he considered himself to be a power in his own right who could not invariably be expected to accept every White House pronouncement uncritically.

It had been Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina who had pioneered the “switch over” of white, southern conservative politicians from the solid South Democratic Party tradition to the Republican Party, and had thus functioned as a role model for people such as Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Allen, George George Allen of Virginia, and Frist, Bill Bill Frist of Tennessee. Thurmond, then South Carolina’s governor, left the 1948 Democratic Party convention out of frustration with President Harry S. Truman, Harry S. Truman’s liberal stance on the issue of racial desegregation and had launched a prosegregationist, states’ rights campaign for the presidency under the banner of the States’ Rights Party, or Dixiecrat, movement. Thurmond garnered close to 1.2 million popular votes and carried the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana to capture thirty-nine electoral votes.

Thurmond had subsequently been elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became a highly visible opponent of integrationist and civil rights legislation: In 1957, he set the record for a congressional filibuster, debating for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes against the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act. During the acrimonious struggle over the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thurmond was involved in a physical scuffle with liberal Democratic senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas, wherein both men ended rolling on the floor. Shortly thereafter, Thurmond announced his move into the ranks of the Republican Party, where he became instrumental in facilitating the party’s rightward political tilt. By December 5, 2002, when he celebrated his one hundredth birthday, Thurmond had become the oldest serving U.S. senator in history.

At a special birthday celebration held that evening in Thurmond’s honor, Lott delivered a speech praising the centenarian senator, during which he uttered words referring to Thurmond’s 1948 campaign. Lott’s words that were to ignite the greatest controversy included the following:

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, either.

Impact

Initially, little media reaction followed Lott’s December 5 speech, except on Web sites and blogs. However, what the media did bring to light was Lott’s voting record and past speeches supporting segregationist causes, and his association with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Council of Conservative Citizens (formerly the White Citizens’ Councils). The repercussions then came on with a vengeance.

Lott’s remarks elicited attacks from all sides. Former Civil Rights movement leaders such as John Lewis and Jesse J Jackson, Jesse ackson, incensed by past memories of Thurmond’s speeches and other activities against civil rights and mindful of Lott’s voting record, denounced the Mississippi senator’s words as a retrograde attack on the progress of civil liberties and racial integration over more than a half century.

Democratic Party legislators, considering Lott’s speech a possible electoral issue, weighed in with increasingly emphatic rebuttals. Among the Democrats, Lott’s most vocal critic was former vice president Al Gore—a frequent past opponent of Lott in the Senate—who called the senator’s speech racist and divisive and who advocated for Lott’s censure by the Senate if he failed to deliver an adequate apology.

On December 9, Lott issued an official apology for using what he called a “poor choice of words” and denied that he had indicated support for Thurmond’s past segregationist ideas. However, Lott was losing support even among his conservative Republican colleagues, and his remarks were proving to be an embarrassment to the White House, which had previously initiated overtures to African American leaders in an effort to bolster support of the Republican Party among people of color. What was probably the coup de grace was delivered by President Bush in a speech in Philadelphia on December 12, in which he roundly criticized Lott’s words as offensive. Throughout the following week, Lott vowed that he would fight to retain the leadership, but as more Republican senators indicated that they favored a change, Senator Frist of Tennessee, who in the wake of the December 5 incident had expressed full support for Lott, made a turnaround and announced on December 19 that he would seek the majority leader’s post.

Lott resigned as Senate majority leader on December 20, and Frist, who had obtained tacit support from the Bush administration as a much more diplomatic and pliant conservative, was elected to succeed him on January 6, 2003. Presidential campaigns, U.S.;Strom Thurmond[Thurmond] Presidential campaigns, U.S.;1948 Congress, U.S.;Trent Lott[Lott] Lott, Trent Thurmond, Strom Bush, George W. [p]Bush, George W.;and Trent Lott[Lott]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, Peter. The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton. New York: Berkley Books, 2001. Though this book was written long before Lott’s speech, it is nonetheless useful in that it adroitly describes Lott’s political style, modus operandi, and the extent of his political influence prior to December, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gregg, Gary L., II, and Mark J. Rozell. Considering the Bush Presidency. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Suggests that the Lott-Thurmond incident provided the Bush administration with a pretext for replacing Lott with Bill Frist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kraus, Jon, Kevin J. McMahon, and David M. Rankin. Transformed by Crisis: The Presidency of George W. Bush and American Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Focuses on Lott’s controversial speech as a crisis, with the Democrats attempting to capitalize and the Bush administration countering with damage control.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lott, Trent. Herding Cats: A Political Life. New York: Regan Books, 2005. Lott’s career autobiography and apologia, in which he argues that he has been misinterpreted and misunderstood. Castigates the Bush administration for backstabbing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schier, Steven E., ed. High Risk and Big Ambition: The Presidency of George W. Bush. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Implies that Lott’s Thurmond birthday speech frustrated the Bush administration’s outreach to African Americans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tiefer, Charles. Veering Right: How the Bush Administration Subverts the Law for Conservative Causes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. A slanted account, but one that does give insight on possible preexisting motives behind Bush’s quick rejection of Lott.

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