Lott, who is set to become Senate majority leader in the 108th Congress, said at the time, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn't of had all these problems over all these years, either."
Thurmond at the time held strong segregationist views.
"I think it reflects a way of thinking that is totally out of step with the 21st century. It's very difficult to apologize for the remarks. I think that the only way to cure this is to demonstrate the kind of commitment to policies that promote healthy race relations in our society," said Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League.
Lott apologized for the second time in three days during a Fox News interview for the off-the-cuff remark made a week ago during the South Carolina senator's birthday celebration. Lott told radio host Sean Hannity that the comments were "a mistake of the head, not of the heart" and that he did not "accept those policies of the past at all."
Price said it would be appropriate for Lott to resign as majority leader. If he does not, Price said, the Republican Party should censure him. Price said President George W. Bush needs to make his position clear.
The White House has remained silent on the issue. On Wednesday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer declined to criticize Lott.
"I think he ought to speak to the senator as the leader of the party and say that he doesn't subscribe to the very jaded world view reflected in the senator's comments. I think the president ought to make it clear that he doesn't take those remarks lightly, that those aren't the policies of his administration. I don't think that's the case, but I think he ought to speak on the record about it," Price said.
Black leaders were not convinced that Lott was sincere in his apologies and cited what they call his record of supporting a segregationist South. NAACP President Kweisi Mfume called Lott's statement the "kind of callous, calculated, hateful bigotry that has no place in the halls of Congress."
"His remarks are dangerously divisive and certainly unbefitting a man who is to hold such a highly esteemed leadership role as the majority leader of the Senate," Mfume said. Lott is scheduled to become the Senate majority leader next month when the 108th Congress convenes.
Mfume added, "Sen. Lott should resign from the position of majority leader-elect to make way for another member of the Republican Party whose moral compass is pointed toward improving race relations and not dredging up this nation's poor, polarizing performance of the past."
California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who becomes House Democratic leader next month, said Tuesday that Lott could "apologize all he wants" but that "it doesn't remove the sentiment that escaped his mouth that day."
Democrats and black leaders were not the only ones disturbed by what Lott had to say.
Ken Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council, warned that should the GOP ignore Lott's statement, Republicans could pay for it during the upcoming presidential election.
"If the GOP does not forcefully distance itself from the senator's ill-conceived remarks, then Democrats surely will hang them around the Republicans' necks like an albatross in the 2004 election." Connor said.
Connor said Lott's comments were not just politically incorrect, they were wrong.
"Democrats already play the race card in campaigns against conservatives. Sen. Lott's comments merely hand them more ammunition. The GOP is the party of Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 14th Amendment. The question the party faces now is whether Sen. Lott has so damaged himself that he can no longer effectively lead the Senate Republicans as their public spokesman," Connor said.
Also Wednesday another issue focused attention on Lott's past and his opinions.
An ultra-conservative group once linked to Lott had filed a brief in the Supreme Court defending cross burning. The high court heard argument Wednesday on whether Virginia's ban against cross burning violates free speech. The justices should hand down a decision within the next several months.
Among the factors they will consider are friend of the court briefs filed by a number of organizations, including the Council of Conservative Citizens. Lott was criticized in 1998 and 1999 following reports he had spoke at meetings of the CCC.
According to The Washington Post, the CCC was formed to succeed the segregationist white Citizens' Councils of the 1960s. The Post said that in 1992, Lott told CCC members in a Mississippi speech: "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."
The group said in its brief that it was interested in the Virginia case because its emphasis "is the protection of the expressive rights of the millions of Americans of British and European descent who hold to conservative views on matters of racial and ethnic relations."
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