Rebel Hunter

Oak Cliff's Ed Sebesta helped topple Trent Lott

No one--least of all Ed Sebesta--would argue that Ed Sebesta of Oak Cliff brought down Trent Lott. But I can make a pretty good case that Lott would still be majority leader of the Senate if Sebesta had never been born.

I have written about Sebesta before: A computer engineer by trade, he was drawn into an avocation as a Web archivist by local issues, beginning with his unsuccessful campaign in the early 1990s to have the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from Lee Park on Turtle Creek. From Lee Park, Sebesta quickly spread his electronic tentacles. (See "Southern Fried," July 1, 1999.)

A high-energy, nervously bright man, Sebesta used his computer know-how and the nascent power of the Web to gather information and intelligence on neo-Confederates--white supremacist, right-wing radicals around the nation. Not skinheads. Not Nazis, Klansmen, militiamen, Aryan Nationals or other easily dismissed characters from the Halloween Right. Sebesta was plumbing a different phenomenon--tenured professors, pundits, politicians and clergy who maintain a double public life, contained and civilized before the big audience but extremely radical, even seditious, in articles and lectures traded more or less behind the scenes in small journals and on Web pages. The third rail powering this train of thought is a deep-seated and bitterly resentful rejectionism--the belief that everything in America since midcentury has been wrong-headed and a tragedy for white males.

For his role in exposing the radical right fringe of the Republican Party, Ed Sebesta has been called "a really important national figure."
Peter Calvin
For his role in exposing the radical right fringe of the Republican Party, Ed Sebesta has been called "a really important national figure."

And please understand: I look in the mirror all the time and think something tragic is happening to midcentury white males. They seem to be losing their hair and getting all wrinkly, for one thing. But this is not about malaise. What Sebesta has gathered, he believes, is evidence of a serious movement among educated people who are racist advocates of secession and a second civil war.

This might all be arcane were it not for the embrace of these people by the Republican Party. The party of Ronald Reagan and the Bushes has courted ultra-conservative Southerners avidly, even though their number includes people who are, according to Sebesta, closer politically to Timothy McVeigh than to Dwight Eisenhower.

Sebesta's work gradually earned him credibility in the 1990s. In 1998 Sebesta's archives were a source for reporters who did stories on Trent Lott's affiliation with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a far-right group. In 2000 Sebesta's files seem to have played a role in stories that contributed to the defeat of John Ashcroft by Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan in a run for the Senate. But the clearest case for his influence is in this most recent cycle of stories on Lott.

Last December 5, Senator Lott, the majority leader from Mississippi, addressed a 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond, retiring Republican senator from South Carolina, who had been leader of the segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s. In the course of his remarks, Lott said: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Even though a dozen or so mainstream media reporters were present and heard Lott make the remarks, none was bestirred to write a story leading with the fact that one of the nation's most powerful leaders had just uttered a rejection of racial integration. Days later the story oozed into the news cycle from a single network television story.

When that report and a few subsequent iterations managed to ignite small sparks of controversy, Lott reverted to what is now common political street practice: He gave a little bit of an apology for the remarks, while also putting a little bit of English on them as a mere off-the-cuff gaffe, hoping to wet down the story through the critical 24-hour news cycle.

But in Trent Lott's remarks Ed Sebesta heard more than a casual gaffe. Apparently lulled into carelessness by his warmly receptive audience, the senator from Mississippi had spoken to the big audience in the vocabulary of radical rejectionism, normally uttered only before carefully sheltered audiences of like-minded souls. It was a gaffe the size of a Mack truck, and Sebesta was the man to put the pedal to the metal. He began immediately e-mailing key elements of his files on Lott, including an interview that Lott had given to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan for its fall 1984 edition.

Lott, who was then minority whip in the House, described the Republican Party as the party of Jefferson Davis, a smart slap in the face for those who'd been taught since grammar school that it was the party of Lincoln. In the interview Lott made reference to the Republican Platform adopted in Dallas at the Reagan '84 re-election convention.

At that convention 18 years ago, by the way, I heard the Reverend W.A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas' First Baptist Church, make remarks eerily similar to Lott's recent words. Criswell painted Dallas as a place that had successfully resisted much of the change brought about elsewhere in the civil rights years and suggested that the rest of the country would have been better off had it been able to follow Dallas' lead. Criswell's words then demonstrate to me that Lott's recent words were hardly off-the-cuff or a gaffe--more like the expression of a long-standing party line among Jeff Davis Dixiecans.

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