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Lott tells BET comments were 'repugnant'

Senator says he can 'move an agenda' to help minorities

Lott on BET:
Lott on BET: "I'm part of the region and the history that has not always done what it was supposed to do."

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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports on an apologetic Trent Lott's appearance on BET (December 17)
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CNN's Gary Tuchman reports on an African-American crowd's reaction to Lott's appearance on BET (December 17)
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CNN's John King reports that Lott's role as Senate Republican leader may be in jeopardy (December 16)
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• 1975: Extend Voting Rights Act -- "No"
• 1980: Strengthen Fair Housing Act -- "No"
• 1981: Extend Voting Rights Act -- "No"
• 1983: Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday -- "No"
Source: Congressional Quarterly

MOBILE, Alabama (CNN) -- A contrite and apologetic Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, appearing on Black Entertainment Television on 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 with BET anchor Ed Gordon.

"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."

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 voted for Thurmond as the presidential 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 the Dixiecrat campaign.

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 the Rev. 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 plans to hold leadership post

Lott said that 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."

"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," he said.

Senate Republicans on Monday scheduled a January 6 meeting to decide whether Lott will keep his leadership post. (Full story)

The White House on Monday declined to offer support for the embattled Lott, refusing comment on calls for new Republican leadership in the Senate. (Full story)

GOP leaders weighed in Monday on Lott, with some voicing support and others saying they had not yet made up their minds on whether Lott's leadership job is salvageable. (Full story)

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, multiracial "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.

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