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Senator Trent Lott
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The Lott is Cast

By Craig von Buseck Producer
December 20, 2002 Early in my years on the pastoral team of a local church I had the opportunity to counsel some couples who were having difficulties in their marriage. I learned an important lesson in interpersonal communication during that time in my life. In the midst of marital conflict, I discovered that the words "I'm sorry" are not enough to make up for improper, and, at times, awful behavior. I learned that to say "I'm sorry" can sound to the offended party like, "I'm sorry I got caught."

My lightning-fast mind finally comprehended that what is necessary in an apology is an acceptance of responsibility, i.e., "I was wrong, please forgive me." What follows is a period of time where proper behavior is demonstrated before trust can be rebuilt.

Forgiveness is given, but trust must be earned. In other words, actions speak louder than words.

Recently, the nation has embarked on a collective counseling session, embodied by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and the African-American community. Mr. Lott has said he is sorry for his not-so-veiled comments at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party that America would have been better off if the Dixiecrats had won the election in 1948. He admitted that he made a mistake in not voting for the Martin Luther King holiday. He declared that he was wrong for supporting policies of segregation in the past.

He has asked the Black community to forgive him for his sins.

It's good that he's repentant -- but it's not enough. After declaring, "I was wrong, please forgive me," Senator Lott will need to submit to a period of time where proper behavior is demonstrated before trust can be rebuilt with Black Americans.

That is why I believe Trent Lott is right to step down from his position as Senate Majority Leader.

Like the majority of Americans, I think that his penitent attitude is sufficient to show that he has truly changed, thereby making the way clear for him to retain his Senate seat. But his trustworthiness is now tarnished to the point that he would not be able to effectively lead the Republican Party -- especially now that it controls the Congress and the White House.

Some conservatives have been surprised at the reaction of Black leaders to Lott's apologies. Spokespeople like Kweisi Mfume and Jesse Jackson have accused the Senator of insincerity at best, and flat-out lying at worst. Sadly, the divide between the political philosophy of the African-American community and the conservative movement is still very wide. This was evident in the 2000 presidential election, where despite efforts to reach out to Black voters, George W. Bush only received 10 percent of the African-American vote. And despite the leadership of Black conservatives like J. C. Watts, Kay Coles James, Alan Keyes, Clarence Thomas, and others, the vast majority of people in the Black community look with great suspicion on the conservative camp.

But why is this so? I believe evidence for the rift can be found in some of the inhumane treatment that many Blacks received from their fellow Americans in the dark century between reconstruction and the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

One such example was highlighted a few years ago when President Clinton, on the nation's behalf, apologized for the federal "Tuskegee experiment," in which government doctors withheld syphilis treatment from a group of African-American men for four decades. Three hundred and ninety-nine men were involved in the experiment in which the doctors gave some of them medicine to treat the disease, while others were given a placebo. The experiment was intended to study the effects of syphilis over a period of time. In 40 years, 128 men died of the disease. Many went blind. Some became insane.

The project was halted when a reporter blew the whistle in 1972.

The reason it took so long for the general public to be alerted was that the medical community did not see a problem with the experiment. In fact, the research was published in more than one medical journal. The prevailing view in the medical community was that there may be no other time in history where this kind of research could take place and so they wanted the study to continue to gather as much data as possible.

Some African-American leaders, such as Louis Farrakhan, held that not only did the doctors refuse treatment in the Tuskegee case, but they purposely injected some of the men with the disease. There is no evidence to support this claim, yet this attitude highlights the gulf of distrust between many Blacks and their fellow Americans.

As an associate pastor, I had the privilege of co-officiating a funeral of an African-American man whose family attended our church. After the conclusion of the graveside service, the family remained and watched until the casket was lowered into the ground. The pastor who had preached the eulogy turned to me and explained that many Black families remain at the grave because in years-gone-by some unscrupulous undertakers were in the habit of removing the body of a Black person and burying it in a cheap wooden box, keeping the coffin to sell to someone else.

The great African-American musician W.C. Handy told the story of a near-death experience he once had in the segregated South. On one occasion, when his band was traveling by train through Texas, one of the musicians contracted smallpox. When the local officials found out, the band members were all detained in the Pullman car and denied medical treatment, food, and even water. The doctor informed them that anyone who left the train car would be immediately lynched. Later, county officers said that if there were the appearance of only one more case of smallpox among them, they would burn the car and carry out the lynching threat. To escape, Handy and his friends disguised the sick man as a woman and smuggled him out of the area on foot in the middle of the night.

Atrocities like these were carried out with little due process of law during the height of Jim Crow. Some public lynchings were community-wide events that included families with picnic lunches and little children playing while the body of the Black offender dangled from the limb of an oak tree.

Distrust runs deep in the African-American community, and for good reason.

Another thing I learned about relationships during my years of marriage counseling is that whether I intend to offend or not, the perception of wrongdoing is real in the eyes of the offended. Even if this generation of conservatives has done nothing to harm the Black community, years of offenses from the conservative camp -- and silence concerning racial injustice -- are not quickly forgotten.

That is why it was so vitally important for President Bush to condemn Senator Lott's comments -- and, in my view, why it is equally important for Trent Lott to step down as Senate Majority Leader.

What conservatives must do to build trust among African-Americans is continue to reach out with acts of love and policies of compassion. Conservatives must show genuine love, not only in words, but in tangible deeds. Apologies from the conservative camp must convey the message that not only are they sorry, but that they were wrong for years of abuse or indifference to the plight of the African-American community.

What the liberal Black leadership must do to build trust among their fellow Americans is to extend forgiveness to people like Trent Lott who admit to their failings and ask for absolution.

It took years of hate and violence to create the racial divide we now see in America -- it will take years of love and acts of goodwill on both sides of the political spectrum, coupled with prayer, to change hearts and build trust.

With regard to those involved in the heinous Tuskegee experiments, no apology or monetary settlement can wash away forty years of deception and devious medical behavior. Unfortunately, these scars will be a part of the fabric of American society for a very long time to come. And this is only one of numerous atrocities leveled against the Black community through the years. In order for healing to come between the party of Lincoln and the community that Lincoln worked to free from slavery, conservative leaders carrying segregationist baggage must not be allowed to hold leadership positions.

For Trent Lott this means stepping aside to allow a new generation of conservatives the opportunity to do the right thing.

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Craig von BuseckCraig von Buseck is Programming Director for

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