Lawmakers feud over condemning supremacist group

Washington Post/March 24, 1999

Washington -- The House erupted into a bitter debate over racism Tuesday, after GOP leaders blocked an effort to condemn a white-supremacist group that had hosted members of Congress.

Arguing that Democrats were simply trying to embarrass prominent Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., for appearing before the Council of Conservative Citizens, House Republican Conference chair J.C. Watts, R-Okla., offered his own, more general resolution protesting bigotry. But the measure offered by Watts, the only African-American Republican in Congress, failed to garner the two-thirds vote required for passage under special rules.

"We cannot possibly condemn each bigoted organization, person or act individually," said Watts, arguing that singling out one group would trivialize the issue: "Why do we make racism and bigotry that small?" Roots of controversy

The controversy over the St. Louis-based Council of Conservative Citizens, which advocates the preservation of the "white race," first erupted late last year after Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., spoke before the group. Barr later condemned the organization, as did Lott, who had appeared before the council in 1992 and on at least one other occasion.

Leaders of the group have insisted their purpose is to serve as advocates for white people rather than for white supremacy. But on its Web site and in its newspaper the group has promoted writings suggesting that integration and intermarriage lead to "mongrelization," and that preservation of the "white race" is essential if the fundamental values of the United States are to survive.

In attempting to defuse the issue, Republicans recently criticized House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., for speaking at least once in 1976 to the Metro South Citizens Council, a St. Louis branch of the precursor to the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Nearly two months ago Reps. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., and Michael Forbes, R-N.Y., introduced a measure condemning the "racism and bigotry espoused by the Council of Conservative Citizens," as well as "all manifestations and expressions of racism, bigotry, and religious intolerance wherever they occur."

Watts' resolution

Thursday, Watts introduced his resolution, which "denounces all those who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice or religious intolerance."

But Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, blasted the GOP for blocking action on civil rights legislation and called the Watts resolution "a futile attempt to show the country they're really not Neanderthals."

Wexler noted that Congress condemned a Nation of Islam leader, Khalid Muhammad, for making racist remarks in 1994 at Kean College in New Jersey and observed that at that time there "was no outcry about singling (out) one man for criticism."

Watts replied that while he had been the target of Democrats' racist statements in Oklahoma, "my friend from Florida has never come to the floor to defend me."

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