Lott has had over 30 years in public life to establish a clear record of opposition to racism and for civil rights. He has demonstrated a pattern of playing the race card.
Lott was referring to Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, in which Thurmond defended racial segregation and opposed civil rights.
Thurmond, a Southern Baptist, headed the States' Rights Democratic Party, which believed that the Democratic Party was too liberal on race.
During the campaign, Thurmond said, "There's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our schools and into our homes."
Thurmond later switched his membership from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.
Lott's remarks were quickly criticized in some quarters.
On Monday night, he issued a written statement, in which he said that he had used "a poor choice of words." He said, "I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
On Wednesday, under increasing criticism, Lott, a Southern Baptist, said that his remarks were a "mistake of the head and not of the heart." He said, "the words were terrible and I regret that."
On CNN's "Larry King Live," Lott said, "I do reject segregationist policies of the past."
Lott's critics have implied that he is a racist. His defenders have said Lott is not a racist and that his comments were "an inadvertent slip." Both sides recognized rightly that the U.S. Senate cannot be led by a racist.
So, is Lott a racist?
One prejudicial comment does not a racist make. One off-color joke does not prove a racist heart. One bigoted act does not make one a racist.
The problem is not a verbal slip, however. Lott's problem is an entrenched pattern. He has a well-worn trail that offers an uncomfortable answer about his racial values.
The Mississippi Clarion-Ledger scrutinized Lott's past:
· In 1968, Lott entered politics under the tutelage of William Colmer, D-Miss., a staunch advocate of white supremacy.
· In 1979, the United Daughters of the Confederacy gave Lott the Jefferson Davis Medal for his leadership in restoring Davis' citizenship.
· In 1980, following a speech by Thurmond, Lott said, "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."
· In 1981, Lott worked to retain the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which prohibited interracial dating. He said, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."
· In 1983, Lott opposed making a national holiday of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Lott said, "Look at the cost involved in the Martin Luther King holiday and the fact we have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving. I just think it was basically wrong."
· In 1984, Lott said, "The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform."
· In 1999, at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, an unmistakably racist group, Lott said, "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."
Lott has had over 30 years in public life to establish a clear record of opposition to racism and for civil rights. He has demonstrated a pattern of playing the race card. And if his Republican Senate colleagues do the morally right thing, Lott has played his last card in leadership.
Apology and expediency are not the qualifying virtues for leadership of the U.S. Senate.
Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.