Trent Lott, Call Home

Why Should We Be Glad He's Still in the Senate?

If it's good news that Senator Trent Lott is no longer majority leader, is there some reason African Americans in Mississippi should be satisfied? Not really. Unless he wraps himself in redemptive legislation, African Americans have little to gain from the rest of his tenure. Aside from his atrocious civil rights voting record, they've also been robbed on bread-and-butter issues, especially given Lott's reputation as a leader who really brings home the bacon to taxpayers.

And while Lott apologized to the country, he doesn't seem to have made any calls to those who represent African Americans at home. He may have called BET when he got in trouble but, according to Voice sources as of press time, Lott had not reached out to the state's highest-ranking black elected official, Congressman Bennie Thompson, any of the 45 African American state legislators, or any statewide civil rights organization.

"You would think he would have called, given that the Black Caucus was one of the primary voices raising this issue, and I am a member of the caucus, and from his home state," Thompson told the Voice.

"I have never known Lott to reach out—in any capacity, throughout his tenure—to the NAACP," said Derrick Johnson of the organization's Mississippi State Conference. Of course, Eugene Bryant Sr., president of the NAACP in Mississippi (once led by slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers), did call for Lott to step down at a December 16 rally in Jackson, saying, "Senator Lott did not get caught up in the moment, he simply got caught." Thompson spokesperson Leneir Avant said, "Trent Lott has simply not been a champion of impoverished people in Mississippi, African American or otherwise."

Stephanie Parker-Weaver, executive secretary of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) in Mississippi, was more colorful: "He's been whistling Dixie for far too long, playing to the bigots and fascists of this state. Well, we say this to you, Trent—it's time to pay the piper. The civil rights community is the dues collector, and your bill has come due." State Senator Phillip West, chairman of the legislative black caucus, told the Voice that Lott should "do the right thing by declining any and all positions of public leadership." The most down-home judgment may have come from Jackson City Councilman Kenneth Stokes in a fiery council debate last week: "He's going to be the same person he's been over the years. We know this man. He ain't no earthly good."

When asked what Lott has done for African Americans, Johnson said, "Nothing that I know of—he's been very non-responsive to black needs in the state. I question whether he has more than one [black] person in his office, even though the state is 36 percent black, the highest black population percentage of any state." Calls to Lott's offices were not answered.

Mississippi as a whole has a per capita personal income of $21,750, lowest in the country, according to the Census Bureau. In recent years, the state's poverty rate has ranked either third or fifth highest in the country. In 2000, the percentage of people living in poverty was 12.9, improved over the past, but still above the national average. The numbers are better in Lott's hometown: Pascagoula, a town of 26,200 residents (one-third African American), has a median household income of $32,042 and an airport named Trent Lott International. And Lott's largesse has also extended to a famous deceased resident of nearby Biloxi: During the Carter administration, he was successful in getting citizenship restored for Jefferson Davis.

"Most, if not all of what he has done, has been for the area that he is from," said West. "Ninety to 95 percent of the beneficiaries have been white—white businesspeople. Other things that may have occurred for the rest of the state perhaps would have occurred whether he was there or not. We have basically gotten nothing."

African American Republicans who defend Lott point to three signs of assistance to blacks: a $930 million Nissan auto manufacturing plant in Madison County, which is expected to create 4000 jobs; aid to historically black colleges; and help for rural health clinics. According to several sources, a number of minority contractors were hired for the Nissan project, but there was some controversy over the eminent domain process with the mostly black property owners in the area.

Some say the contracts may be due as much to the governor's influence as the senator's, and others say Lott simply chose which blacks would get the contracts. "Nissan was asked to do business with black people," said West. "It was like he used his influence to get black persons who were his political associates, as opposed to reaching out to help black people."

Most who talk about aid to black colleges cite the Trent Lott GeoSpatial and Visualization Research Center at Jackson State University. "These institutions of higher learning in our communities have been neglected historically," said West, "and whatever they have received has been negligible compared to white institutions. This is not about segregation. This is about a way of life that is still in his mind, and in the minds of some people here, that we are still second-class or third-class people."

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