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Lott: Segregation and racism are immoral

Lott: "My choice of words were totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize for that."

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PASCAGOULA, Mississippi (CNN) -- Republican Senate leader Trent Lott offered a public apology on Friday for comments that appeared to endorse segregation.

At a birthday celebration in honor of Sen. Strom Thurmond last week, Lott noted that in Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, whose centerpiece was opposition to integration, Mississippi was one of four states Thurmond carried.

"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 said.

Lott, 61, is the incoming Senate majority leader.

The following is a transcript of Lott's comments Friday and the press conference which followed:

LOTT: Well, first, thank you for being here and giving me an opportunity to comment further on a number of things that have occurred and been said over the past few days. I have a prepared statement, and then I have a brief announcement, and then I'd be glad to take your questions.

Segregation is a stain on our nation's soul. There's no other way to describe it. It represents one of the lowest moments in our nation's history, and we can never forget that.

I grew up with segregation here in these communities, but I want to note that in these communities of Pascagoula and Moss Point, Gautier and Ocean Springs, Mississippi, we worked hard to overcome that and to bring about reconciliation and to work together.

I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them.

Let me be clear: Segregation and racism are immoral.

I feel very strongly about my faith. I grew up in a local church here. I actively participate. And as I've grown older, I have come to realize more and more, if you feel strongly about that, you cannot in any way support discrimination or unfairness for anybody. It's just not consistent with the beliefs that I feel so strongly about.

I've seen what that type of thing in the past can do to families, to schools and to communities. I've seen personally the destruction it's wrought on lives and good people. I've known many of them personally. And I know that there are terrible harms that have come out of that era.

The president was right when he said that every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding principles and our founding fathers. I lived through those troubled times in the South. And along with the South, I have learned from the mistakes of our past.

I've asked and I'm asking for forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes, and as I continue to grow and get older. But as you get older, you hopefully grow in your views and your acceptance of everybody, both as a person and certainly as a leader.

With regard to my remarks about Strom Thurmond, Sen. Thurmond is a friend. He's a colleague. And if no other reason, because he's a 100 years old and still a member of the Senate, he's legendary.

But he came to understand the evil of segregation and the wrongness of his own views. And to his credit, he's said as much himself.

Last week, I was privileged to join hundreds of others to honor him.

It was a lighthearted affair. But my choice of words were totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize for that.

Let me make clear, though, in celebrating his life, I didn't mean in any way to suggest that his views of over 50 years ago on segregation were justified or right. It was wrong and immoral then, and it is now.

By the time I came to know Strom Thurmond, some 40 years after he ran for president -- I knew of him when I was in the House of Representatives; I didn't really get to know him until I started running for the Senate and moved over to the Senate -- he had long since renounced many of the views of the past, the repugnant views he had had, and he made public himself.

That said, I apologize for opening old wounds and hurting many Americans who feel so deeply in this area.

I take full responsibility for my remarks. I can't say it was prepared remarks. As a matter of fact, I was winging it. I was too much into the moment.

But I only hope that people will find it in their heart to forgive me for that grievous mistake on that occasion.

Not only have I seen the destruction by these immoral policies of the past, I have tried to and will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that we never go back to that type of society again.

I have worked in this town, in this county and in this state to try to help people, to bring about reconciliation, to reach out to people of all race, colors, religions, to give them a chance to get a better education, to get a job. That's the best way I can think of to help liberate people, to help them be able to get a good paying job.

And this is a blue collar, working-class community, and we've been blessed with the opportunities we've had here because we're a blue collar, working-class community.

Now, there'll be some disagreement on the best ways to ensure that every American -- every American -- of every color and race and ethnic background has a fair and equal chance in life. But our goals are the same, even though we'll debate it on philosophical or partisan lines.

We want a color-blind society that every American has an opportunity to succeed; an end to the entrenched poverty and joblessness that has plagued minority communities and communities of all kinds in this state and across this nation; a good education for every child, that gives him a real chance for a good life and that rejects the soft racism of low expectations.

I benefited from a public education in this state. I was able to go on to college and to get a law degree. So did my wife and so did both of my children, both in public schools in Virginia and in Mississippi. And it gave us the chance that we want everybody to have to get a good education and then go on to have a profession and get a job.

We need strict enforcement of civil rights laws on the books and all laws on the books to guarantee equality and punish racism.

Government does best when it helps people help themselves. You've heard that phrase before. Human dignity is found not in a handout but a hand up to help people to be able to do more for themselves and their children and their grandchildren and their future.

Government should be about giving people a real chance to do for themselves and help themselves to live the American dream. I believe this because I have lived it.

My father, when I was born, was a sharecropper -- yes, a sharecropper. He raised cotton on somebody else's land in a county where everybody was poor, regardless of race or anything else. Almost everybody was barely making it.

And then, of course, we came down to Pascagoula. My dad was a shipyard worker, and my mother taught school. So I have lived this dream.

I was their only son; the first to earn a graduate degree. And I feel so strongly that everything I've been able to do, in my education, in my opportunities in life and in my political career, is evidence that, no matter where you're from or what your background of your parents or what your race is, you can, if you work hard and take advantage of the opportunities, get a good education, you can live this American dream.

To those who believe that I was implying that this dream is for some and not for all, that's just not true. But I apologize for those that got that impression.

I work in this state to try to make sure that all Mississippians have a chance at the American dream. And I will continue to do that as long as I live.

In the days and months to come, I will dedicate myself to undo the hurt I have caused and will do all that I can to contribute to a society where every American has an opportunity to succeed.

As a man of faith in a local church here, I read the Bible all of my life. I now more fully understand the psalm that says, "a broken spirit, a contrite and humbled heart."

One final point: The next step to make sure that these are not just words here today is I am talking to and working with African-American leaders like Roy Innis, of the Congress of Racial Equality, and Bob Johnson, of Black Entertainment Television.

And in that vein we are working to get the final agreement on a time next week -- early next week when, for a full hour, I will talk about my hopes and dreams for the people in this state and this country regardless of their race, and to make sure that African- Americans have the opportunities that they deserve.

That was the announcement I was going to make. Now I would be glad to take your questions.


LOTT: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much.


LOTT: You know, I was surprised, and that shows you where I've done wrong. I mean, obviously I had a blind spot. I was insensitive in the words I chose, the extra phrase I added.

I did not in any way mean to be endorsing policies of 54 years ago. I was trying to make happy an incredible, legendary human being that, you know, holds the record in the Senate, was 100 years old, landed at Normandy. And I love him for so many things he has done and the growth that he has shown. But that doesn't justify it, you know.

When you're from Mississippi and when you are Republican leader, you got an extra burden to make sure you think about every word and every phrase so that it doesn't convey the wrong impression or hurt people. And so, while I was, you know, surprised because I was just into the event, I still have caused a major problem, and I want to get over that.

QUESTION: Sen. Lott, a lot of conservative commentators have called for you to step down as Senate Republican leader. Have any Senate Republicans come to you privately and asked you to step down or perhaps talked to you about a Senate censure for what you said, even though you've already apologized?

LOTT: No senator has spoken to me about the possibility of me stepping down directly, publicly or privately; certainly not any Republican senator. A lot of senators have called to say they're -- frankly, they're praying for me, to offer suggestions and ideas of what we can do to, you know, have something positive come out of all of this.

But, you know, I'm not about to resign for an accusation that I'm something I'm not.

And my colleagues have been very good about calling. Even, you know, Sen. Paul Simon from Illinois was at the event. He's a Democrat, ran for president, a pretty liberal Democrat, really nice guy. I'm crazy about him, too. He brought over and introduced me to his wife because his first wife I had known and passed away a couple of years ago.

He called and said, "Look, I was there. I saw the tone of the event. I heard what you said. I in no way, you know, read into it what has been inferred." And so, I mean, that's what a Democrat said.

Some people might be surprised that Jim Jeffords hadn't exactly made my life a, you know, bowl of cherries the last year and a half, but Jim Jeffords put out a statement saying, "I know this guy. I have been in 15 or so states with him around the country. Never did he utter one word" -- these are not his words, but basically saying, "This is not the Trent Lott I know. I may not agree with him on how much funding for that, you know, some education program, but I know the man." And I appreciate him doing that.


QUESTION: Mr. Leader, you said you were winging it last week. You winged it in the same way in 1980 (inaudible) ... the same comment in the newspaper here. And even regarding issues like Martin Luther King's birthday, the Voting Rights Act. Strom Thurmond voted for Martin Luther King holiday. You voted against it. I wonder if you could see how your actions don't inspire a lot of confidence in some people, particularly in the African-American community.

LOTT: Well, I've heard about the 1980 incident, and I don't deny that that, you know, almost the same words were used.

I mean, for many years I'd go up to Sen. Thurmond -- some of you know where he sits there on the floor, and, you know, we've had -- I'd kid with him and say, "Strom, you'd have made a great president." And he always looked up and smiled big. And it was just that kind of a, you know, platonic, almost father/son relationship that we had.

But you know, there are a number of issues that I have voted for and supported over the years. Look, Martin Luther King Jr. was a premiere civil rights leader in this country a little over the last 50 years.

And while I have never supported additional holidays, because I think they are -- they cost a huge amount of money -- $325 million is the statistic I have -- one of the things I have done, for instance, is I did vote to put a bust in the Capitol because there was a lot of support for it, and I thought that that was something that would help bring about reconciliation.

Also, I was the author of the resolution commemorating Juneteenth Independence Day -- June 19, 1865, the day on which slavery finally came to an end in the United States. I did that.

And some people were surprised about it, but, you know and I've been working with a number of African-American leaders to try to get a suitable memorial, a monument on the Mall.

I made the point in an interview three weeks ago, well before this developed, that I had seen some leaders over the year that, you know, might surprise you. And one of them was Charlie Rangel of New York who worked with me when we passed the Africa free trade bill. And at one point, it was about to die. And I talked with him, and he said, "No, I don't want to blame anybody for what we didn't get done. Let's get this done."

He and I worked together. We passed a bill. It will be a bill in the end that will help the people in Africa and that will help the people in America, because trade is good.

Somebody will argue with me about that in this state, but I think that free trade, like freedom and free enterprise, is what America is based on.

QUESTION: Senator, you've already mentioned the old reputation that Mississippi still has, and those that grew up here and experienced it with you struggle it every day. But you now represent a new, stronger Republican Party nationwide, and that's got to be very important to every elected official in that party.

Does this recent incident lessen your strength in a position that you are (OFF-MIKE)

LOTT: You know, a friend of mine that sang for "The Lawrence Welk Show" -- I don't know, 15 or 17 years -- has written a song called, "Mississippi, This is Your Song."

And it talks about, you know, Mississippi, you know, you seek forgiveness where you've gone wrong.

One of the things I'm committed to is to try to help this state. I don't want us to be, you know, treated the way we've been treated, sometime by our own making. I want us to be a part of this nation. I want us to be economically competitive, socially competitive, civilly competitive and a part of the national team.

That's one of the things I really enjoyed in my party. They have not held where I'm from against me. They've allowed me to, you know, be involved and advance, maybe because I was here, because I was trying to find a way to help this state.

Some people have been critical of me: "Oh, by the way, you try to bring federal money to your state." Well, yes. You know, when I tried to get funds to bring the bridge right over here. You want to take a look at it? I mean, people were endangered. We couldn't grow. We couldn't get across the bridge at certain hours.

So I feel, you know, very strongly about trying to improve the image of this state. And I appreciate so much the fact that my colleagues have allowed me to be in a leadership position for 20 of my 30 years in the House or the Senate. And I don't want to do anything that stops our effort to reach out and to get more people involved in the party.

And in government, just voting. That's why I'm for this election reform bill that we passed. I talked to Eddie Bernice Johnson, congresswoman from Dallas, last week, and she was asking me about that, like she was surprised that I was for election reform. And I think we should fully fund it.

I want everybody to be able to vote. I don't want hanging chads, you know.

And in this state, by the way, we got a secretary of state's worked pretty hard in working with the local officials and we had, you know, pretty efficient and we had fair and honest elections. I want that to apply all over America.

And I want the Republican Party not to be hurt by this. I want us to find a way to reach out and build on mistakes that we have in the past, but commit ourselves to the future.

When I go around this state and I give speeches to mixed groups, I've noticed that when I start talking about what we want in this state are jobs, quality education for everybody, infrastructure so that we can attract those jobs, it was no accident that we brought the Nissan plant to Canton, Mississippi -- Canton, Mississippi, by the way, which is an overwhelmingly African-American community. This $1.5 billion plant is going to mean hundreds and thousands of jobs. That's what we've got to do more of in this state. It'll help us all.

QUESTION: Senator, you've said that you've repudiated segregation (OFF-MIKE) previously you acknowledged that (OFF-MIKE)

LOTT: I don't think I said that. I don't think I said that.


LOTT: You know...

QUESTION: When did you decide...

LOTT: Just think back what has happened in this state and this country over the last 100 years and what's happened over the last 50 years, and the progress we've made in the -- particularly in the '60s and the '70s and the '80s and the '90s. I know this state has more African-American elected officials than I think any other state, certainly per capita.

And by the way, we have African-American Republican elected officials: the mayor of Tchula, Mississippi. We've had -- you know, we had a congressional candidate that ran as a Republican nominee. And we've been encouraging that.

So Mississippi, like the South and the rest of the country -- this was not, by the way, a problem that was just in the South. You know, we get a little offended sometime that that's the way it's stated. In fact, we think we have made more progress in reconciliation of relationships maybe than some other people in other areas.

So we change with the rest of the country as we got away from those things and made real progress. And I think that particularly in the last 20 years you've seen huge advances. Are we where we want to be? Or is it perfect? No. And that's why I say we've got to do even more.


LOTT: Not at all. It's not an offensive either.

I know Bob Johnson, the man that founded and owns Black Entertainment Television. He's from Mississippi -- Jackson, Mississippi, like a lot of other highly successful, outstanding African-American Mississippians in sports and music and entertainment, business. And I've worked with him in the past, and I've been trying to arrange a time when he could come to Jackson to speak to the 100 black businessmen's group.

And he, you know, he knows me, and he called, he said, "Look, you need to be able to speak to the audience that we have. Would you be willing to do that?" And so, I mean, I didn't call and say, you know, "This is part of my offensive." He offered, and I said absolutely.

So that's what I am saying, though, this is not a one-day deal, this is something that's going to take time and effort.

The president's certainly doing his part to reach out. This faith-based initiative, where religious organizations can help people in need, an awful lot of the biggest supporters, including Juanita Doty, in my state of Mississippi that I appointed to the National Community Service Board, will tell you that African-American churches are more enthused about this faith-based initiative than a lot of other people.

So those are the kinds of things we're going to have to do more of.


LOTT: You know, when I see Strom Thurmond, the Strom Thurmond I have known, this is a man that was chairman of the Armed Services Committee, so I see strong national defense.

He was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. I remember when I first moved over to the Senate, I thought, "Gosh, can he still give a -- you know, a strong speech." He got in the center aisle, gave a strong speech about how unfair crime is and the need for strong law enforcement. I presume it was a crime law reform; I don't remember the particular bill.

This is a man that has always said that, "Look, we got to encourage growth, but we got to have fiscal responsibility; we need to look at the bottom line, make sure that we don't create long-term problems for ourselves by overspending or any other practice that will cause problems for our children." That's the guy I knew.

But instead of that, really, it was just an effort to help -- encourage an elderly gentleman to feel good on that occasion of his 100th birthday.

So there were no venal thoughts in my mind. But those are the things I thought about.

QUESTION: Sen. Lott, you represent the state of Mississippi, and here in Mississippi we have a very large African-American population. (OFF-MIKE) to reach out to that important constituency?

LOTT: Well, the first thing I need to do is to do a good job as a senator for the state, work on issues here at home and at the federal level that will help the state. And I mentioned those the ones I've concentrated on here have been economic growth initiatives, infrastructure.

You know, I found out that, you know, if you don't have decent roads you're not going to get industry, people won't come. And also roads that will, you know, will get you killed; that's what happened to my own father.

And also, of course, education. Our education system, we sometimes are too critical of it. Some schools are really good. I think the school here in this community is good, Ocean Springs; a lot of good ones. But it's uneven. It's not consistent all across the state.

I'm trying to help our universities, including our historically black universities and colleges. I have a program named for me at Jackson State University because I helped get some research funds from Defense and NASA to help them do some research for the Stennis Space Center in Hancock County.

I gave the commencement address at Alcorn State University. I probably had six or eight interns from Alcorn State University. I think those internship programs are very good, because you get young college students. You give them a chance to come to Washington.

You listen to them, by the way. I always have lunch with them and say, "OK, tell me what you see, tell me what you think, tell me what you want in life."

And I've made it a point to appoint Mississippians, including African-American Mississippians, to national commissions and boards, because we can do it too. We've got outstanding people here.

I mentioned Juanita Doty right here in the Pascagoula area.

I appointed the longshoreman union head, Ronald Robinson, to the National Labor Standards Board, an African-American. I'm going to tell you right quick he's a Democrat. But I knew him. I've known him since I practiced law here in 1967. I knew him to be a good, smart man that was working in an area that was relevant.

And there are others like that. The vice chairman of the Postal Rate Commission is Danny Covington, from the Mississippi Delta; an African-American. I can give you a list like that. And I've had staff members for years and years and years, including some from right here in Moss Point and Pascagoula, Mississippi, area. And I do today.

And it's not just African-Americans. I have other minorities that have worked or work for me now.

QUESTION: So what's your life been like in the last seven days?

LOTT: Sort of like a hurricane. As my wife and I had planned to -- we thought this would be a quiet time and a good time to get just a couple of days off to, sort of, rest before we came home to childproof our home here in Pascagoula, where we -- we're going to have our three grandchildren here.

Those two days certainly weren't restful, as I was trying to talk to people and reach out and think out and think and try to even communicate, which was hard to do because there was no television station close by. But it's been -- you know, it's been very difficult.

Again, I don't complain. I don't blame anybody else. I brought this on myself. And it's going to be up to me to deal with it.

But government office and leadership roles are not easy anywhere. In the corporate world, in the labor world, management, Wall Street, we've seen all of that. And you make mistakes or sometimes you get -- you know, you do get roughed up. This is a political arena. And so, it can be very, very tough.

But I've been through that for 30 years. And I'm going to try to learn from this and be an even better person, as I said, and leader.

QUESTION: Sen., you and your office have issued several apologies and clarifications over the last several days. Why did you feel the need to come here and expound upon that? Were you pressured by anyone in Washington to come here today?

LOTT: No, first of all, I was in Washington last week. I can't remember what day this birthday party was -- Wednesday or Thursday. I was there Thursday, Friday, Saturday -- events, went to events Saturday, Sunday, Monday.

I left Tuesday afternoon and had lots of, you know, contacts with the media, and there was not much being said about it. And then, all of a sudden, of course, when (inaudible) got, you know, quite active and I was in a remote area, and the only way I could communicate was in writing or in -- at that point, this was Wednesday and Thursday -- or by radio hookup with Larry King and Sean Hannity.

LOTT: But the main reason I'm here today is because I'm home, I'm in Mississippi. And the first person I called on was local media.

I knew I needed to do this with my local people anyway. And so since I had not actually stood up and taken questions from the national media because of my location for the last three days, it seemed like the logical thing to do. I didn't want to, you know, be running back and forth doing one, two or 100 interviews. This seemed like a better way to do it.


LOTT: Yes? I don't want to go on too long, but go ahead.

QUESTION: Senator, before the president publicly denounced your comments, did he contact you, did he say anything?

LOTT: I did receive a call, and his remarks were read to me. I said, "That sounds fine." You know, they were terrible words. I apologized, and rightly so, that's what he said.

And I talked to him after his trip to Philadelphia yesterday. And we have a very close relationship, and we talked about it. And, you know, it was a very positive conversation. I'm not going to quote him, because you're not supposed to.

But, look, I've talked to everybody that I can get on the phone, the president, the vice president, the president's chief of staff. Probably 50 or 55 senators that are strung all across the country and the world and a lot of individuals, leaders in Congress, in Washington, African-American leaders and others.

All right, last question?

QUESTION: You said that you support everybody's right to vote, and yet you were one of just a handful of people in the House of Representatives, just 24, who opposed the expansion of the Voting Rights Act that would have created penalties for southern states that didn't assure open polls for black voters.

LOTT: My problem with that was it was always aimed at one region. I had serious doubts about my...


LOTT: And by the way, that was...


LOTT: Let me go back to this gentleman's question.

QUESTION: Senator Lott, several groups have tried to link this controversy to the nomination of Charles Pickering.

QUESTION: They said they're going to try to bring this up to get the White House not to renominate him and make him a federal appellate court judge. Do you think this is going to hurt Judge Pickering next year?

LOTT: All I know of this is Federal Judge Charles Pickering is an outstanding human being that has made an excellent judge, and he would make an excellent circuit court judge.

Obviously, people will try to use it against. They used a lot of things against him last time that were very unfair.

But, you know, we'll work through that before the year is out and early next year.


LOTT: All right. Thank you all very much. Appreciate it.


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