WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., on Friday asked the nation for "forgiveness and forbearance" for his controversial remarks spoken during a 100th birthday celebration for Strom Thurmond that were widely denounced as racist.
"I apologize for opening old wounds and hurting so many Americans," Lott said.
Lott stepped before reporters assembled in his hometown of Pascagoula to explain the comment that drew fire from President Bush, his Republican colleagues and civil rights organizations. Lott cut his vacation in Key West short to answer critics who were calling for his resignation as Senate leader.
"Segregation is a stain on our nation's soul," Lott said. "There's no other way to describe it. It represents one of the lowest moments in our nation's history, and we can never forget that."
Bush publicly rebuked Lott on Thursday for the comments Lott made on Dec. 11 during Thurmond's birthday party. Lott said, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president (in 1948), we (Mississippi) voted for him," he said. "We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
At the time, Thurmond held strong segregationist views.
Friday, Lott smiled broadly as stepped to the podium and explained that he had grown up in an environment that condoned polices and views "that we now know were wrong and immoral" and "I repudiate them."
"Let me be clear. Segregation and racism are immoral," Lott said.
Lott said he felt strongly about his religious beliefs and that as he has grown older, he has come to understand that discrimination was inconsistent with those beliefs. He called Thurmond's party a "lighthearted" affair, but conceded that his choice of words were unacceptable and insensitive.
"I didn't mean in any way to suggest that his views of over 50 years ago on segregation were justified or right. It was wrong and immoral then, and it is now," Lott said.
Harkening back to his city's blue collar roots, he recalled the legacy of his sharecropper father, and went on to say that he has worked to bring about reconciliation and to reach out to people of all races, colors and religions.
While there would be some disagreement, he said, over the best way to ensure every American has a fair and equal chance in life, Lott said the goals are the same.
Lott said was working with black leaders like Roy Innis of the Congress of Racial Equality and Robert L. Johnson, chairman of Black Entertainment Television, a company now owned by Viacom. Lott said he plans to appear on BET next week for one hour to discuss his hopes and dreams for the people in Mississippi, "regardless of their race."
Lott, who is set to become Senate majority leader in the 108th Congress, has been under heavy fire from civil rights groups and Democrats since his comments. But his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill began Wednesday calling for Lott to step out and respond.
Early reaction was mixed.
Wade Henderson, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said he was disappointed that Bush and other Republicans had not push for Lott to resign.
"But what matters now is whether he will speak through his actions as well," Henderson said following Lott's statement. "As such, we call upon him to forcefully exercise his authority as a leader to show how the depth of his commitment to civil rights by repudiating the mistakes of the past and by ensuring that the civil rights protections established over the last 50 years are not eroded."
Former Democratic Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois told CNN that he thought Lott's remarks had been "blown out of proportion" and that the controversy might in fact lead to a substantive debate on the state of race and civil rights in the U.S.
But Ward Connerly, an African-American who opposes affirmative action programs, responded that he believes Lott, while not a bigot, was insensitive and should not continue as majority leader.
On Thursday, Bush traveled to Philadelphia, where before a predominantly black audience, he rebuked Lott, saying the suggestion the nation's history of segregation was acceptable or positive "is offensive and ... wrong."
Bush said Lott's comments did not "reflect the spirit of our country."
"Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals," Bush said.
The question on Capitol Hill is whether Lott will politically survive. The White House said Bush does not want Lott to resign the Senate leadership.
Senior GOP Senate staffers said Thursday that Bush's comments were necessary both morally and politically.
"Someone needed to take him out to the woodshed over those statements," said one staffer. "This needed to come out so that we can all move on. He's been rebuked by a Republican president for that stupid comment. (Lott) can now move on in leading the party."
Compounding Lott's troubles Thursday was a Time magazine report that 40 years ago, Lott helped lead a successful battle to prevent his college fraternity, Sigma Nu, from admitting blacks to any of its chapters. Lott at the time was president of the intra-fraternity council of the University of Mississippi.