Trent Lott's Segregationist College Days

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Under Fire: Lott says his comments about Strom Thurmond were wrong

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott helped lead a successful battle to prevent his college fraternity from admitting blacks to any of its chapters, in a little-known incident now four decades old. At a time when racial issues were roiling campuses across the South, some chapters of Sigma Nu fraternity in the Northeast were considering admitting African-American members, a move that would have sent a powerful statement through the tradition-bound world of sororities and fraternities. At the time, Lott was president of the intra-fraternity council at the University of Mississippi. When the issue came to a head at Sigma Nu's national convention — known as a "Grand Chapter" — in the early 1960s, "Trent was one of the strongest leaders in resisting the integration of the national fraternity in any of the chapters," recalls former CNN President Tom Johnson, then a Sigma Nu member at the University of Georgia.

The bitter debate over the issue took place at the convention in a New Orleans hotel, as Johnson recalls. Sigma Nu's executive secretary Richard Fletcher, a legendary figure in the fraternity, pleaded with the Sigma Nus to find some common ground between those who wanted to integrate and those who didn't, Johnson says. But the southerners were unbending about permitting no exceptions to the all-white policy. With their chapters threatening a walkout, the fraternity voted overwhelmingly to remain all-white.

Johnson, who voted on Lott's side, now calls that vote "one of the biggest mistakes of my life." Over the years, as Johnson became a media executive, word would get back to him from time to time that Lott was repeating the tale to mutual acquaintances — to embarrass him, Johnson believes.

Asked about the fraternity vote, Lott responded through a spokesman, who said: "Those were different times in a different era. Senator Lott believes that segregation is immoral and repudiates it." The spokesman also notes that Sigma Nu integrated in the late 1960s, and that its Ole Miss chapter now accepts African-Americans.

It was Lott himself who first told me this story, back in the mid 1980s. He was a Republican Congressman and I was a reporter freshly assigned to cover Capitol Hill for the Los Angeles Times, where Johnson was then the publisher. "In later life, it seemed that Trent felt he 'had something on me,' when he would share the fact that he and I had been on the same side in the national fraternity debate," says Johnson, who later went to work as an aide in Lyndon Johnson's White House and more recently helped lead the battle to have the confederate battle flag removed in Georgia. Johnson recalls of Lott back then: "He was against integration. I was against splitting the fraternity. Yet my vote had the same impact and is subject to the same interpretation — that I also opposed integration. I am very disappointed in myself. I hope my record for the past 40 years speaks louder than that."

Lott has been under fire since last week, when he declared that his state was proud to have voted for Strom Thurmond's segregationist ticket in 1948. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead," Lott added in remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday party, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years either." Lott has since apologized, and on Thursday, President Bush said the apology was deserved. "Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong," Bush declared.

Lott was a witness to one of the pivotal episodes in that past. During his senior year at Ole Miss, violence erupted there when U.S. marshals moved to install Air Force veteran James Meredith as its first African-American student. Lott was not among the students advocating integration, but did succeed in persuading his fraternity brothers not to join in the rioting. In 1997, Lott told TIME: "Yes, you could say I favored segregation then. I don't now. The main thing was, I felt the federal government had no business sending in troops to tell the state what to do."