Paige Defends Lott, But Calls Remarks ‘Unfortunate’

By Michelle R. Davis — December 12, 2002 6 min read
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Secretary of Education Rod Paige this week defended Sen. Trent Lott for comments some are calling racist, made during a 100th-birthday celebration for Sen. Strom Thurmond.

“Senator Lott is a great American, and to try to indicate that he’s a racist ... is absurd,” Mr. Paige said Dec. 11 when Education Week asked him about the senator’s remarks.

Mr. Lott, who like Secretary Paige is from Mississippi, has been taking heat from a long list of groups and individuals for suggesting at the Dec. 5 event for Sen. Thurmond of South Carolina that the United States would have been better off had Americans elected Mr. Thurmond president in 1948, when he ran as a segregationist candidate. Both senators and the secretary are Republicans.

Mr. Lott has since apologized for the comments at least three times, saying in his first, printed statement: “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.”

But the furor over the comments has continued to build. Some civil rights groups have called for Sen. Lott to step down from his post as Republican leader, which would make him Senate majority leader when the Republicans take charge of the chamber in January. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, all of them Democrats, have blasted Mr. Lott, as have some members of Mr. Lott’s own party.

On Dec. 12, after former GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp and several conservative pundits, such as the columnist Charles Krauthammer, had joined the chorus of criticism, President Bush weighed in during a Philadelphia speech, saying that Mr. Lott’s comments were “offensive” and that the senator was right to apologize.

Within hours of that speech, Dan Langan, a spokesman for the Department of Education, added to Mr. Paige’s earlier remarks. Sen. Lott’s comments were “unfortunate,” Mr. Langan said on behalf of Secretary Paige.

The previous day, Mr. Paige, who is African-American and in 1948 was attending segregated schools in Mississippi, excused Sen. Lott and said the criticism was unwarranted.

“This approach to this should be beneath us as Americans,” Mr. Paige said of the reaction to Mr. Lott’s remarks. Mr. Lott “made those comments at a 100th-birthday party for someone who has served America for all these years. ... He was caught up in the euphoria of that and made statements that were complimentary to the honoree that day. Anybody who wants to read that kind of [racist] meaning into that statement has some other intent.”

During the celebration for Mr. Thurmond, the Senate GOP leader said: “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.”

Reactions to Lott, Paige

Sen. Thurmond ran for president in 1948 when he was the governor of South Carolina. Unhappy with the civil rights stance of the Democratic Party, of which he was then a member, he ran under the newly raised banner of the States’ Rights Democratic Party, called himself a “Dixiecrat,” and said one of his goals was preserving racial segregation. He carried four Southern states, Mississippi among them.

After he was elected senator in 1954, Mr. Thurmond also gained—and still holds—the record for the longest Senate filibuster. That 24-hour, 18-minute speech in 1957 was part of an ultimately unsuccessful attempt by several Southern senators to block civil rights legislation. Mr. Thurmond became a Republican in 1964.

Sen. Thurmond, who will retire from the Senate when his seventh full term expires in January, has renounced his segregationist positions.

The “Strom Thurmond of 52 years ago is not the Strom Thurmond of today,” Secretary Paige said.

Education groups have condemned Mr. Lott’s comments. Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, called the statements “totally unacceptable for the overwhelming majority of Americans.” But he declined to comment on Mr. Paige’s reaction.

Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, said Mr. Lott’s remarks were “outrageous and indefensible.” When asked to comment on Mr. Paige’s reaction, he declined but emphasized that Mr. Lott’s “comments show a pattern of disregard to the values that are central to our democracy.”

Roger B. Clegg, the general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative, Sterling, Va.-based public-policy group that has criticized affirmative action and bilingual education, also blasted Mr. Lott’s comments and said they reflect poorly on a Republican Party that has tried to reach out to minorities. “The party needs to think long and hard about whether it can afford to have a visible national leader with a lack of credibility on an important issue like civil rights,” Mr. Clegg said.

Mr. Clegg praised Mr. Paige for his reaction to the controversy, however. The secretary, he said, is a “generous-spirited person, and those remarks do him proud.”

“I think it’s terrific that he’s willing to come to the aid of someone who’s being attacked,” Mr. Clegg said, “and willing to forgive some obviously stupid remarks.”

“The fact that Secretary Paige is someone who is likely to be truly offended and threatened by Senator Lott’s remarks, if anyone is—I think it’s significant that he isn’t offended or threatened,” Mr. Clegg said.

But Julian Bond, the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was disappointed to hear Mr. Paige’s reaction, despite the list of conservatives who have decried Mr. Lott’s remarks.

“It’s sad that party loyalty makes him defend the indefensible,” Mr. Bond asserted of Mr. Paige. “He’s in a tough job, and I guess he thinks he’s got to tow the party line to hold that job.”

Separate and Unequal

Mr. Paige, who is 69, has a unique perspective on the controversy. Not only is he one of the highest-ranking African-American officials in the Bush administration, and the first black to serve as U.S. secretary of education, he also grew up in Mississippi during a time when the state’s name was virtually synonymous with racial inequality.

An avid athlete, Mr. Paige went to a segregated high school, and in the past has taken public notice of the fact that a nearby school populated exclusively by white students had its own gym and lighted football field, while his didn’t. Students at his school used hand-me-down books, Mr. Paige told the Houston Chronicle in 1994.

But in a 2001 interview with The Washington Post, Mr. Paige declined to elaborate on the differences between white and black schools when he was growing up.

“I’m reluctant to get too graphic about those because it’s almost irrelevant to me now ...” he said, adding that his strong family support had helped him overcome racial barriers. “That was the period of time I grew up in, but we didn’t allow that to retard our full development.”

In the Dec. 11 interview with Education Week, Mr. Paige, mirroring his remarks about Mr. Thurmond, said that Mississippi has changed over the years and has worked hard to shed its racially divisive image.

“The Mississippi of 52 years ago is not the Mississippi now,” he said. “Compared to a lot of places in America, Mississippi has done a lot of work on the relationship between those groups,” he said, referring to blacks and whites.

Mr. Paige also said that Mr. Thurmond had changed his stance on racial issues over the years and praised the centenarian for his support of historically black colleges and universities while in the Senate. In addition, Mr. Paige said Mr. Lott has been a stalwart supporter of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, “which is aimed directly at helping disadvantaged children, most of which are minority,” he said. “There are more important issues for us to deal with.”

Mr. Paige said he had no problem defending Mr. Lott. “I’m unabashed about it,” he said.

In response to a follow-up request to the Department of Education, a spokesman declined to provide more information on Mr. Paige’s thoughts on Mississippi’s support of Mr. Thurmond in 1948 or whether the country would be better off if Mr. Thurmond had been elected, as Mr. Lott asserted.


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