In Mississippi Gulf, divided views on Lott

Many trust the embattled Senate leader. Others see taint of 'Old South' views.

Inside the red-brick walls of Sen. Trent Lott's hometown church, devoted members prepare for the annual Christmas service.

The First Baptist Church, where Mr. Lott was raised a Christian, is framed with white marble and wood. Its steeple is visible for miles down the beach.

While many of the largely white congregation have the holidays on their minds, some are also thinking, supportively, of their occasional visitor. "I talked to him [Lott] this morning, just to tell him we're with him all the way," says Sam Jones, associate pastor. "He's a fine Christian gentleman, not a racist at all. We've all had a change of heart on that issue over the years."

On the other side of the tracks from the First Baptist, down the road at the Wal-Mart, Clinton Simon is less forgiving. "If you ask me, he's the old guard," says Mr. Simon, an African-American who works as a security guard. "I say it's time for him to go."

The twin views in this Gulf Coast town encapsulate much of the sentiment across Mississippi as the man who become a pillar in both Washington and the South confronts the biggest crisis of his political career.

Though the views don't all break neatly along racial lines, many whites do remain staunch supporters of Lott for, among other things, all the roads, bridges, and jobs he has brought to the state over the years. Many blacks feel he is too rooted in the segregationist past.

In many ways, the political divide over a comment by Lott that seemed to endorse racist views reflects the deep cultural clash that still exists in large parts of Mississippi. With integrated schools, factories, and some churches - yet with most of the African-American population still living north of the railroad tracks and working as laborers instead of managers - the Gulf Coast in particular is a place with one foot in the New South and one in the Old South.

Some residents still proudly fly the Confederate flag, and eateries operate under names like the Old South Bar-B-Q. But blacks and whites also work alongside one another for equal pay at dock-side casinos. Public golf courses, particularly in the age of Tiger Woods, are no longer largely white playgrounds.

To many here, Lott is seen as sort of a New South probusiness conservative. He's not a strictly religious conservative, although he touts the antiabortion line, and his views dovetail with Jerry Falwell's so-called Moral Majority.

He runs populist-sounding campaigns with proenvironment rhetoric, obtains billions in federal aid to help the private sector, and is seen as someone who works hard to bring in jobs for the "home folks" - black, white, or yellow.

The junior senator's comments paying homage to the segregationist past of Strom Thurmond, the former Dixiecrat candidate for president who carried the state in 1948, make Lott one of the last Old South conservatives in the region, experts say Some Southern politicians like Lott tend to brag about all they bring to the state, while criticizing Washington the way Ronald Reagan did. Lott's campaigns take on a populist cast. "There is a paradox in Mississippi and the South in general," says Robert McElvaine, a historian at Millsaps College. "Everybody is supposed to be opposed to the federal government. Yet the state benefits more than most."

Bringing in the jobs

While devotees of the New South see the government as playing a role that helps private enterprise, he said, "Lott may have a foot in both worlds." "In terms of his rhetoric being so antigovernment, and then the occasional slip back into racism," says Dr. McElvaine, "he's more Old South than most anyone else of his generation."

Others draw a comparison between the state's two senators. "There are two strains to the Republican party in Mississippi," says Curtis Wilkie, a journalism professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "There's the far-right strain represent by Lott and the more moderate strain represented by [Thad] Cochran."

Still, many residents like what they see in Lott. Typical is Mary Anderson, the white matriarch of Anderson's Bakery here in Pascagoula (pop. 26,000). "I don't care what they say: He's not a racist," she says. Joe Cole Jr., vice president of Northrop Grumman Ship Systems, credits Lott with bringing steady jobs to the state. "If we lost his leadership in the Senate and if he left the Senate, we'd be hard pressed to replace Trent Lott," he says.

Critics of Lott

Further down the beach, however, the sentiments are less effusive. The Rev. Robert Landor of the Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Long Beach says his flock feels the same as many blacks. "He made a mistake, and we could forgive a mistake, if he would be honest about how he really feels," he says.

Some whites believe Lott has hurt the state, too. Richard Howorth, the Democratic mayor of Oxford, refers to an email his college-age daughter sent him. "She's saying what so many of us are saying ... This is our crucible. It's been this way my whole life and it's frequently the result of problems from things that politicians from Mississippi have said that keep us back."

Material from Gail Russell Chaddock and the Associated Press were used in this report.

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