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Senator resigns after ill-chosen comment reignites a race row in Mississippi and exposes 150-year-old divisions
Julian Borger in Oxford, Mississippi
Saturday December 21, 2002
Senator Trent Lott's college days were spent at the University of Mississippi, the Deep South's most historic seat of learning, commonly known as "Ole Miss", which in itself says a lot about the place. It is a term of endearment and the name slaves had for the white mistress of the plantation.
The central building, the Lyceum, once served as a civil war hospital and stands across a leafy circle of grass from a monument to the Confederate dead. The Mississippi flag flapping between them still defiantly displays the rebel emblem - stars on a diagonal cross - that evokes days of glory for many local whites; slavery for blacks.
It was here, in 1962, that a watershed occurred in the history of the south. When the first black student arrived for classes, there were race riots and President Kennedy dispatched more than 30,000 troops. Lyceum's neo-classical pillars today bear the marks of bullets fired during the so-called Battle of Oxford, as a sign perhaps that in Mississippi the civil war has never quite ended.
As a fresh sign that the wounds of racial division still run deep, Mr Lott announced last night that his two-week battle to retain his position as majority leader had been lost and he was stepping down, with effect from January 6. He has finally been consigned to the very history he seemed unable or unwilling to escape.
Mr Lott's wounds are, as he has admitted several times over, self-inflicted. Earlier this month, at the 100th birthday party of another relic of the old south, Senator Strom Thurmond, Mr Lott suggested the US would be better off if the old man had won the presidency in 1948, which would be fine and noble except that Mr Thurmond stood as a segregationist.
The resulting uproar has thrown up some pressing questions, most immediately whether Senator Lott is a fit leader for the new "inclusive" Republican party. It also prompts awkward thoughts about how much Mississippi has really changed.
William Faulkner, arguably America's greatest novelist who lived less than a mile away and once worked at Ole Miss as its postmaster died only months before the Battle of Oxford, but he had seen trouble brewing. "The south is armed for revolt," Faulkner wrote. "These white people will accept another civil war knowing they're going to lose."
In the south, Oxford's Nobel laureate warned, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
At Ole Miss - for generations the gateway to power in the poorest state in the union - 13% of the student body is now black, including two out of the last three student presidents. The Confederate battle flag has been removed from the university's banner and from Ole Miss sports events.
However, these changes have all been introduced in the last five years by a reforming chancellor, Robert Khayat, a Lebanese-American. The transformation is still fragile and shallow. Even now, the university marching band blares out the Confederate anthem, Dixie, which is for many just another reactionary icon. Some of the black musicians routinely put their instruments down rather than play along.
Sigma Nu, Mr Lott's old fraternity which he campaigned to keep segregated, is still overwhelmingly white though blacks now have a fraternity house of their own.
"There are still a lot of things done separately here, because people stick with what they know," said Brian Haynes, the head of the Black Student Union. "But Ole Miss has progressed tremendously. It's not the place outsiders think it is."
There is certainly no comparison with the institution today and the Ole Miss on September 30 1962, when James Meredith insisted on registering for studies and in so doing changed the history of the south. Two people were killed that night.
Mr Meredith, the hero and central figure in that encounter, now runs a car repair shop in Jackson, nearly three hours drive south of Oxford. As far as he is concerned the Lott affair has reignited the battle he fought 40 years ago.
"I think the debate Senator Lott has started is the most important debate since 1962 or maybe since the 1850s," Mr Meredith said. "The question is, am I citizen or am I not a citizen of this country?"
Mr Meredith was in the same class as Mr Lott. Three years ago, he visited the senator and asked him point blank whether he still believed in white supremacy. "He didn't really answer."
As far as Mr Meredith is concerned, the jury is still out on that question. Mississippi is clearly no longer the place Martin Luther King described as "a desert state sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression". In 1962, only 8,000 blacks were registered to vote. Now Mississippi has more black elected representatives than any other state in the country.
But the senator's comments have made many blacks rethink some of their assumptions about real attitudes beneath the veneer of white southern gentility.
"It gives people who say Mississippi has changed pause to step back and say well, maybe not. You can stop people waving the flag, but not the way they think," Mr Haynes said.
All the ambiguities and uncertainties of modern Mississippi were on show at a college basketball game in Ole Miss this week. Almost all the players in Mississippi colours on the court were black, being cheered by a multiracial audience that mixed freely in the queues for hot dogs.
But on the Lott question, the crowd split along racial lines.
Steve Robinson, along with every other black basketball fan questioned, said the senator should step down and that he had revealed deep fault lines underlying daily Mississippi life.
Most whites thought Senator Lott had simply made a mistake - "he should have kept his mouth shut" was the most frequent comment - and that he ought to keep his job. Even extreme groups such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the supremacist White Citizens Councils of the civil rights era, have moderated their language, and won Senator Lott's endorsement.
The council's leader, Gordon Baum, is furious with the senator, not for his original remarks but for his subsequent apologies in which Mr Lott claimed to support such traditionally liberal policies as affirmative action.
"He's shot himself in the foot because he grovelled," Mr Baum said. "Now the people in his own state are ticked off at him. These people are hard and they've got strong beliefs."
His anger illustrates the Republicans' dilemma over what to do with Mr Lott. The party has dominated southern politics since the 1960s. Before that it was seen as the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Unionist army, supported in the south only by blacks.
Those allegiances inverted in the heat of the civil rights struggle. Blacks switched to the Democrats. Southern whites, such as Mr Lott, defected in droves to the Republicans.
To maintain its ascendancy in the modern south, however, the Republican party has to appeal simultaneously to southern conservatives, moderate suburban whites and to a significant minority of blacks. It is a strategy that requires a certain amount of ambiguity about the past, and it is that ambiguity that Mr Lott's indiscretion has shattered.
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