Everyone got what they wanted when Trent Lott stepped down as Senate majority leader: His GOP colleagues were saved from association with a racially-insensitive chief; the Republican party was saved from Lott's baggage in the next election; and Tennessee senator Bill Frist could vie for the coveted Senate majority leader post.
But for African-Americans, who had been determined to make the senator recant his words, Lott's resignation does little more than camouflage a problem long allowed to fester in politics.
The country had been in an uproar over the Mississippi senator's remarks during retiring senator Strom Thurmond's birthday bash. After Lott's fateful, and politically fatal, ode to Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid on a Jim Crow ticket -- that if the rest of the country had followed Mississippi's lead and voted for Thurmond, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" -- the Mississippi NAACP and other African-American groups called for Lott's resignation. President Bush gave him a verbal spanking, and even fellow Republicans turned against him, citing damage to the party and its image.
Jesse Jackson said it would be "shame on the Republican Party" if its leaders allowed Lott to keep his position.
Days later Lott publicly apologized, saying that he was "winging it" and asking for forgiveness as he continued to "learn from his mistakes." All the repentant bowing and scraping on network television, in the papers, and ultimately on BET, were too little, too late. But while Lott's comments may have been shameful, it should have also been "shame on" the voters who opposed his views but still allowed him to be elected.
Lott has been a senator since 1988, and he won his latest reelection bid in 2000. Surely African-Americans voters turned out in record numbers to prevent his reelection, right? Wrong. Only 34 percent of Mississippi's African-American voters participated in that election.
The shock and outrage aimed at Lott would be better spent if it were targeted at the 66 percent of African-American voters who didn't even bother to show up to vote. As African-Americans, we have no one to blame but ourselves. We let Lott and politicians like him infiltrate the governing bodies of our nation by not going to the polls and voting them out of office.
If the Civil Rights Movement was really about empowerment, there is no excuse for this consistent apathy toward voting. If more of us voted, politicians would know that the inevitable repercussion from racially-insensitive statements would be career termination. While Lott's remarks refreshed our short-term memories and brought us back to a time best forgotten, those ideas still exist. We've been to the mountaintop, now it's time to climb over.
Since the speech, much has been brought to light about the Mississippi senator's past, including his efforts to keep his fraternity free from African-American membership, his backing of legislation to prohibit busing to desegregate schools, and his votes against the Martin Luther King holiday. Surely these things were evident early in Lott's career. Where were African-American voters?
This time we were lucky. The Republican party couldn't afford the repurcussions and couldn't avoid Lott's removal. But what about next time, when the next politician makes a "mistake," or "wings it," and says something best not said? Are we going to again be reactionary, demanding after-the-fact apologies, or will we do our homework first and oppose their election before they get the chance?
Maybe we need to "learn from our mistakes" too.
Janel Davis is a staff writer for The Memphis Flyer.