Washington — Rejecting his apology as insufficient, black congressional Democrats and others sharply rebuked Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., Tuesday for remarks he made last week praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's run for president in 1948.
Thurmond's candidacy as a "Dixiecrat" explicitly endorsed racial segregation - a position he later passionately defended as a U.S. senator from South Carolina, most memorably when he filibustered for more than 24 hours against a civil rights bill.
Thurmond eventually relented his opposition to integration, and now is known for his record as the Senate's oldest and longest-serving member.
It was at Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Thursday that Lott, who will become Senate majority leader when Congress convenes next month, noted that the Dixiecrat ticket carried Mississippi in the '48 election. In words that have sparked a continuing furor, Lott added: "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's comments began eliciting criticism during the weekend, and on Monday he issued an apology. "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past," Lott said. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize for my statement to anyone who was offended by it."
He had no further comment Tuesday and, according to his press secretary, flew home to Mississippi.
Even so, he continued to take heavy fire from both sides of the political spectrum. The Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page slammed him. So did congressional Democrats, who on Tuesday issued fresh statements of outrage. Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus - an all-Democratic group - made clear they did not consider the matter closed.
"It is extremely upsetting," said Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the group's incoming chairman. "Those are the kinds of words that tear this nation apart. And so we're going to do everything in our power to address it."
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called on Lott to resign his leadership position.
President Bush and other leading Republicans stood by Lott.
"From the president's point of view, Sen. Lott has addressed this issue," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. "The president has confidence in him unquestionably."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who frequently clashes with Lott on policy, said his colleague had been misunderstood.
"I've known Trent Lott for over 20 years, and I know he doesn't hold any segregationist views, and he clearly did not mean words like that in that fashion," McCain told CNN Monday night.
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, who for several years has been the lone black Republican in Congress, also appeared on television news shows to defend Lott.
While it seemed likely that Lott would ride out this controversy, the continued reaction to his remarks gave GOP leaders renewed cause for concern about their perennially weak standing among black voters.
Republicans periodically unveil "minority outreach" programs, but Democratic presidential candidates routinely carry 80 percent to 90 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls. And with Watts' decision not to seek re-election, there will be no black Republicans in the next Congress.