WASHINGTON — Rejecting his apology as insufficient, black congressional Democrats and others sharply rebuked Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) on Tuesday for remarks he made last week praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's run for president in 1948.
Thurmond's candidacy as a Dixiecrat explicitly endorsed racial segregation -- a position he later passionately defended as a U.S. senator from South Carolina, most memorably when he filibustered in 1957 for more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill.
Thurmond eventually relented in his opposition to integration, and he now is known for his record as the Senate's oldest and longest-serving member.
It was at Thurmond's 100th birthday party Thursday that Lott, who will become Senate majority leader when Congress convenes next month, noted that the Dixiecrat ticket carried Mississippi in the 1948 election. In words that have sparked a continuing furor, Lott added: "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."
Lott's comments began eliciting criticism during the weekend, and on Monday, he issued an apology. "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past," Lott said. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize for my statement to anyone who was offended by it."
He had no further comment Tuesday and, according to his press secretary, flew home to Mississippi.
Even so, he continued to take heavy fire from both sides of the political spectrum. The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page slammed him. So did congressional Democrats, who on Tuesday issued fresh statements of outrage. Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus -- an all-Democratic group -- made clear they did not consider the matter closed.
"It is extremely upsetting," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the group's incoming chairman. "Those are the kinds of words that tear this nation apart. And so we're going to do everything in our power to address it."
The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People called on Lott to resign his leadership position.
President Bush and other leading Republicans stood by Lott.
"From the president's point of view, Sen. Lott has addressed this issue," said White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. "The president has confidence in him, unquestionably."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who frequently clashes with Lott on policy, said his colleague had been misunderstood.
"I've known Trent Lott for over 20 years and I know he doesn't hold any segregationist views, and he clearly did not mean words like that in that fashion," McCain told CNN on Monday night.
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who for several years has been the lone black Republican in Congress, also appeared on television news shows to defend Lott.
Although it seemed likely that Lott would ride out this controversy, the continued reaction to his remarks gave GOP leaders renewed cause for concern about their perennially weak standing among black voters.
Republicans periodically unveil "minority outreach" programs, but Democratic presidential candidates routinely carry 80% to 90% of the black vote, according to exit polls. And with Watts' decision not to seek reelection, there will be no black Republicans in the next Congress.
Democrats, meanwhile, engaged in some soul-searching over their party's response to Lott's comments. Some accused prominent party leaders of being too quick to accept the Republican's apology.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) singled out Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota for such criticism. Daschle expressed empathy for Lott's predicament. "There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently," Daschle said.
Waters responded: "We need our leadership to come forward and denounce [Lott's] kinds of statements and activities. Mr. Daschle moved too quickly to explain Mr. Lott."
Daschle issued a new statement Tuesday on the controversy. "Regardless of how [Lott] intended his statement to be interpreted, it was wrong to say it and I strongly disagree with it. His words were offensive to those who believe in freedom and equality in America."
Daschle's criticism was echoed by incoming House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). In her first comments on the matter, Pelosi denounced Lott's remarks as "completely inappropriate." She added: "I don't know if any apology is adequate."
Despite Thurmond's change of approach on racial issues, he remains for many a symbol of the South's long history of institutionalized segregation.
He initially won election to the Senate in 1954 as a Democrat. He switched to the Republican Party in 1964, embracing the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).