By John Kifner
"Trent is an honorary member," said Arnie Watson, a former state senator, tax assessor and currently a member of the council's executive board. Video Reporter John Kifner on MSNBC
But after a month of questioning and scrutiny about his relationship with the group, Lott issued a statement Wednesday night, saying: "I have made my condemnation of the white supremacist and racist view of this group, or any group, clear. Any use of my name to publicize their view is not only unauthorized, it's wrong."
It would be difficult for any conservative politician here -- Democrat or Republican -- to remain ignorant of the Council of Conservative Citizens.
There are 34 members of the Mississippi Legislature among its roughly 5,000 members in the state, said William Lord, the state coordinator, and prominent politicians, including Gov. Kirk Fordice, a fellow Republican, regularly speak at its meetings and rallies, which are festooned with the Confederate flag.
The council embraces a range of conservative causes, including opposition to unfettered immigration and busing for school desegregation, and promotes "Southern cultural issues." It held its semiannual national convention here in Jackson just after the November elections, with Fordice as the keynote speaker. The governor and the roughly 300 people present stood and sang along as "Dixie" was performed, but found their seats during "My Country, 'Tis of Thee." People at the meeting matter-of-factly told The Jackson Clarion-Ledger that Lott was a member, and the state's largest newspaper printed this without objection from the senator's office.
But in mid-December, the council -- and its relationship to Lott, who is shepherding the impeachment trial of President Clinton -- became the object of a growing national controversy.
First, the Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, during testimony before the House Judiciary Committee on the impeachment issue, took umbrage at a remark by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., about "real Americans," taking it as anti-Semitic. He then attacked Barr for speaking at a national meeting of the council, which he described as racist. Then The Washington Post reported that Lott had also addressed the group. Both men issued statements distancing themselves from the council. Lott said he was not a member.
Lott's initial statement said he did not consider himself a member and had "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, issued a report Dec. 18 contending that the council, which it described as having 15,000 members in 22 states was "the incarnation of the infamous white Citizens Councils," which helped enforce segregation in Mississippi and other Southern states in the 1950s and '60s."
"The CCC has tried for years to pass itself off as a respectable, mainstream organization," said Joe Roy, director of the center's Intelligence Project. "But the fact is, this group is shot through with white supremacist views, members and political positions."
Mark Potok, the Law Center's spokesman, added that the old white Citizens Councils were "the white-collar Ku Klux Klan," noting that they were composed of respected local business and civic leaders and government officials who sometimes backed violence, including murder, against blacks seeking civil rights.
The white Citizens Council, formed to battle the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation ruling, was once Mississippi's most powerful political machine, reaching its height in the early 1960's with the election of Gov. Ross Barnett. It raised thousands of dollars for the defense of a supporter, Byron De La Beckwith, who was convicted in 1994 of murdering civil rights leader Medgar Evers 31 years earlier.
Bill Minor, dean of Mississippi journalists who has long followed the race issue, said the Council of Conservative Citizens was "the reincarnation of the white Citizens Council."
Lord, the council's state coordinator was a white Citizens Council organizer during the struggle over civil rights and told The Jackson Clarion-Ledger in 1994 that he used the old white Citizens Council mailing lists to set up the new organization. Gordon Baum, a St. Louis lawyer who is the group's chief executive officer, was a Midwest field organizer for the white Citizens Council. The new organization was formed at a 1985 meeting in Atlanta of a group of about 30 men distressed, Baum said, "at the lack of conservative organizations on the local level, where the rubber hits the road." He added, "These conservative talking heads in Washington are just living in baronial splendor, taking people's money."
Both men insisted, in telephone interviews, that the group was not "racist," but concerned with a range of conservative issues. But nearly every column or article in its quarterly newspaper, The Citizens Informer, is concerned with race.
For example, "No one can deny the importance of the question of miscegenation or race-mixing," Robert B. (Tutt) Patterson, a founder of the original white Citizens Council and a regular columnist, wrote in last fall's issue. "Its very essence involves the preservation of the white race as well as the Negro race. It is a matter of racial survival. Compared with the future interest we have at stake in this issue, all other matters fade into insignificance."
"Western civilization, with all its might and glory, would never have achieved its greatness without the directing hand of God and the creative genius of the white race," Patterson wrote. "Any effort to destroy the race by a mixture of black blood is an effort to destroy Western civilization itself. To deny this is to deny all history."
One of the Mississippi council's major events is the Black Hawk rally, held in Carroll County before elections every four years and a mandatory stop for most politicians seeking statewide or county office. It was originally a fund-raiser for the white Citizens Council, but is now used to raise money for the all-white Carroll Academy, which was set up to avoid desegregation.
Lord, the events organizer, said Lott had appeared at the last two rallies.
A black state legislator, Rep. Willie Perkins, a Democrat whose district crosses several counties around Greenwood, said in a telephone interview that he had been invited to the last event in 1995, but refused to attend because "it takes you back to the days of the Klan."
In 1992, Lott gave the keynote speech to a semiannual national board meeting of the council in Greenwood. The account in The Citizens Informer said he wound up by saying: "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries."
As recently as 1997, a smiling Lott was pictured in The Citizens Informer in his Washington office with Baum, the council's executive officer, Lord, the state organizer, and Tom Dover, the group's president.
Literature distributed by the council cites endorsements by a number of conservative politicians, including Fordice; Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.; the voluble Boston City Councilman Albert L. (Dapper) O'Neil, and former Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, who was noted for distributing souvenir ax handles as symbol of his method of dealing with people trying to integrate his Atlanta-area restaurant in the 1960s.
The endorsement attributed to Lott says, "America needs a national organization to mobilize conservative, patriotic citizens to help protect our flag, Constitution and other symbols of freedom."
Lott's newspaper column, which is distributed by his office as a release, is also a regular feature of The Citizen Informer.
"We're a rather large organization in Mississippi," Baum said, sounding somewhat aggrieved at the slight. "I would assume someone as astute as Mr. Lott would have a pretty good grasp of us."