A contrite Lott tells BET he's changed
MOBILE, Alabama (CNN) -- A contrite and apologetic Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, appearing on a black-oriented cable channel Monday, denounced his recent comments about the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, calling them "insensitive," "repugnant" and "inexcusable."
"I'm now trying to find a way to deal with the understandable hurt that I have caused," he said in an interview telecast on Black Entertainment Television.
"I obviously made a mistake, and I'm going to do everything I can to admit that and deal with it and correct it. And that's what I hope the people will give me a chance to do."
Calling the segregated society of his Mississippi youth "wicked," he conceded he was a part of it, although he said he has never considered himself superior to black people.
"I'm part of the region and the history that has not always done what it was supposed to do," he said. "But in order to be a racist, you have to feel superior. ... I don't believe any man or any woman is superior to any other man or woman."
Lott also said he now thinks it was a mistake to have voted against creating a federal holiday honoring civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983, although he noted that he has opposed creation of any new federal holidays because of the expense.
"I'm not sure we in America, certainly not white America and the people in the South, fully understood who this man was, the impact he was having on the fabric of this country," he said.
"I have a high appreciation for him being a man of peace, a man that was for nonviolence, a man that did change this country. I made a mistake. And I would vote now for a Martin Luther King holiday."
He also said he supports affirmative action programs to increase minority participation in American society, though not "quotas and timetables."
"I practice it. I have had African-Americans on my staff and other minorities ... since the mid-1970s," he said. "I think you've got to have an aggressive effort in America to make everybody have a chance. ... I think we should encourage minorities to have an opportunity across the board."
Lott also said he thinks his voting record, roundly panned by civil rights groups because of his opposition to the King holiday and extension of the Voting Rights Act, doesn't reflect his support for equal opportunity.
"My actions in directly trying to help individuals and schools and communities and education in my state and community development and infrastructure and to create jobs so that people can get up out of poverty and get a good education and get a job and be able to do more for their children -- isn't that a commitment that really matters?"
Lott said despite the controversy he believes he will be able to keep his post as Senate Republican leader, which will make him the majority leader when the GOP assumes control of the Senate in January, "because of what I'm going to say and what I'm going to do."
"I accept the fact that I made a terrible mistake, used horrible words, caused hurt. I'm sorry about that. I've apologized for it. I've asked for forgiveness, and I'm going to continue to do that," he said.
"[But] it is about actions more than words. As majority leader, I can move an agenda that would have things that would be helpful to African-Americans and minorities of all kinds and all Americans."
Lott told BET Monday that after talking with a number of black leaders in recent days, including Reps. J.C. Watts, R-Oklahoma, and John Lewis, D-Georgia, he sees the need for a bipartisan, multi-racial "task force of reconciliation."
"A lot of, I think, what is wrong here is not enough communication, not enough understanding of how people feel and how there has been immoral leadership in my part of the country for a long time," he said.
Lott set off a firestorm of controversy in remarks he made December 5 at the 100th birthday party for Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who is retiring from the Senate.
Noting that Mississippi was one of four states to vote for Thurmond as the candidate for the breakaway Dixiecrats in 1948, he said, "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."
Asked what he meant by "all these problems," Lott told BET that he was referring to other parts of Thurmond's conservative political philosophy, not his support for racial segregation, which was the centerpiece of Dixiecrat campaign.
The other three states were Louisiana, Alabama and South Carolina, of which Thurmond was the Democratic governor.
Thurmond led the walkout at the Democratic convention in 1948 over the party's support of civil rights. He and other disgruntled Southerners formed the States' Rights Party, also known as the Dixiecrats. Thurmond joined the Republican Party in 1964.
He said when he got to know Thurmond after arriving in Washington in the 1970s.
"I saw a senator that was committed in the fight against Communism, that had fought Nazism, a senator that was for fiscal responsibility and one that also thought that law and order was very important -- protecting people of all races against crime. That's what his focus was."
But Lott said he conceded that he "absolutely" understood that Thurmond had personified support for segregation.
Senate Republicans plan to hold a conference of their members on January 6 to decide whether they want Trent Lott to serve as majority leader in the new year.
The move -- announced by the Senate Republican Conference -- is another sign that GOP confidence in Lott's leadership appears to be eroding because of racially divisive comments that have dogged him for more than a week.
Lott was elected to a two-year term to the leadership post in November, but several senators have said that needs to be reconsidered in light of the current furor.
Some Republicans and conservatives say Lott's controversial remarks have opened the GOP to charges of racial bigotry and threaten to distract the party from pursuing its agenda in Congress.