By DOUG SAUNDERS
Globe and Mail Update
Friday, January 17, 2003
The faces on the lunch-hour crowd at Chappy's restaurant are overwhelmingly white, and the food is rich and spicy. Here, around the tables of this roadside institution, are gathered the lunching elite of this prosperous little town on the Gulf of Mexico coast, a sliver of wealth in America's poorest state.
At the bottom of the menu is the restaurant's signature dish, Trent's Crab on Crab: A deep-fried soft-shelled crab, topped with a hollandaise sauce spiked with more chunks of crab. Like its namesake, Senator Trent Lott, many northerners find it hard to digest.
Around here, people seem able to handle both the calories and the political contradictions that have turned this region into a crucible for racial politics in the United States. After I eat a comparatively modest dish of blackened steak topped with fried shrimp, I talk to people about their senator, who caused a major upheaval in the Republican Party last month after he made remarks suggesting that he had once supported racial segregation. In the ensuing melee, it came out that Mr. Lott, and many other southern politicians, had been saying things for years that sent racial-separatist messages to white voters in the south.
Mr. Lott has since stepped down from his position as Senate majority leader. He is now just one of two Senators from Mississippi, but Mississippi is still not just an ordinary place. The state is about to enter the headlines again, as George W. Bush has announced that he will renominate a Mississippi judge, Charles Pickering, to the U.S. Fifth Court of Appeals. The Democrats rejected an earlier nomination when they controlled the Senate. Mr. Pickering's own record on racial issues (he seems to have once supported segregation) is likely to put this region's distinctive ways under the spotlight once a gain.
If you think that race is the big issue here, though, just try to get anyone to admit it. "I like Trent, but I think he's made a stupid mistake and he deserves to pay the price for those stupid things he said," says Lee Pilman, an accountant who's eating lunch here. "He's really misrepresented the way people think here."
This is the South, after all, where the deep-set racial tensions are buried under a thick layer of friendliness and generosity.
As I drive along the marshy shore to the nearby casino town of Biloxi, I tune into the sonorous voice of Rip Daniels. Mr. Daniels, a black minister, hosts the most interesting radio show in the South. Today, his guest is Richard Barrett, who ran for Mississippi governor on the Nationalist platform.
"I am not a racial integrationist, and neither are Mississippians. If anything, I think we should have an apology to Strom Thurmond," Mr. Barrett says, referring to the 100-year-old Republican senator whose 1948 presidential bid on a segregation ticket triggered the whole Trent Lott affair. "They call it segregation, I call it freedom of choice. It's the right to choose who you want to live with, who you want to hire - - it's about freedom."
Rip Daniels is too cool and measured to rise to this. He offers Mr. Barrett the verbal equivalent of a raised eyebrow. "I don't think you and I exactly see eye to eye on this matter."
A few days before, Rip Daniels had been talking to a reporter who asked him if he thought Trent Lott gave a bad name to his state. He didn't think so. "Trent Lott is a bigot. He's always been a bigot. He was raised in a bigoted environment. Does that mean he is unfit to represent Mississippi? No. That means he represents Mississippi."
On this point, Mr. Daniels and Mr. Barrett seem to agree.
I had come to Biloxi because this casino town has long been a racial battleground. In 1960, black bathers tried to swim in the city's whites-only beach, spawning the worst race riot in Mississippi's history and one of the key events in the civil rights struggle. More recently, blacks and whites have been engaged in a heated battle over the county's decision to fly a Confederate Army battle flag, considered by many to be a symbol of the era of slavery, over the beach.
So when I sat down with an official from the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America's leading civil rights group, I expected to hear something like what Rip Daniels had said: Trent Lott and Charles Pickering are emblems of the region's racial divisions.
I must have forgotten that this is Mississippi, where congeniality can trump even the deepest resentments. I drove north from the casinos into a dusty clapboard neighbourhood of poor blacks, where the NAACP office was located. There I sat down with Vernon Mangum, a 35-year-old teacher at the local air-force base who has been a leader in the battle over the flag.
He spoke warmly of Trent Lott, who had once helped him with an assignment when he was in school. Mr. Lott has a problem with race, Mr. Mangum acknowledged, but there could be worse things.
"Most of the people in this community, they feel that there is a better opportunity in giving him an audience, in helping him become informed and representing us. Everything I've heard about Trent Lott - - he's for Mississippi. He's done a lot. We would probably be worse off if we just sent him away."
He may have a little problem with bigotry, but he's a nice guy, and he's one of us. Here, at the very bottom of the United States, is the dilemma of the South.