Firebrand: Strom Thurmond addressing the Southern Governors’ Conference, 1948.
By DAVID OSHINSKY
Published: September 28, 2012
When Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina died in 2003 at the age of 100, he seemed to embody the term “political survivor.” Think of someone who began his career as a Roosevelt Democrat and finished it as a Reagan Republican, who campaigned for president as a white supremacist and ended up supporting a national holiday for Martin Luther King. Decades passed, one generation replaced another, but Thurmond soldiered on, swapping causes, even political parties, with a juggler’s eye. Where many politicians become objects of contempt or indifference over time, with Thurmond the reverse was true: the longer he lasted, the more revered he became.
He hailed from Edgefield County in the hardscrabble Carolina Piedmont, home to several governors and a host of Lost Cause Southern heroes like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the race-baiting demagogue who notoriously advocated lynching to protect white women from black “lust.” Edgefield had a tradition of enforcing its Jim Crow laws with a heavy hand — a necessity, whites believed, in a county where two-thirds of the residents were black. It also had a history of military service and bitter feuding, which the Thurmond family proudly upheld. Strom’s grandfather, a Confederate corporal, was present at Appomattox when General Lee surrendered, and his father killed a man who made the mistake of insulting him, though a sympathetic jury found self-defense. To be raised in Edgefield County, Joseph Crespino writes in “Strom Thurmond’s America,” a deft portrait of the senator’s interminable career, “was sufficient to provide a politically minded white boy with a sense of heritage and calling.”
Like most of the South in this era, South Carolina was a one-party state. The party of Abraham Lincoln had been violently crushed in the years after the Civil War by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In Edgefield County, as elsewhere, politics took place within the Democratic Party, which stood squarely for segregating the races. In 1932, when Thurmond won his first election to the South Carolina Senate, Franklin Roosevelt carried the state with 98 percent of the vote. At that point, an informal bargain evolved: Southern Democrats would back Roosevelt’s bold attempts to end the Great Depression, and Roosevelt would reciprocate by ignoring their grievous treatment of blacks. For a shrewd politician like Thurmond, the terms were ideal. He got to take credit for the federal money pouring into his impoverished state while remaining as racist as he pleased. Among the bills he pressed in these years were one to exempt K.K.K. property from taxation and another to “use only white people” as maintenance workers in state buildings.
Thurmond served in World War II, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. Returning home, he declared for governor and won an upset victory with the aid of South Carolina’s growing labor movement. It would be “the only time in his career,” writes Crespino, a history professor at Emory University, “that Thurmond was the more liberal candidate in the race.” For Southern Democrats, however, the political ground had shifted with Roosevelt’s death in 1945. The new president, Harry S. Truman, not only urged Congress to pass civil rights legislation; he also issued an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in the armed forces.
Crespino’s description of what followed makes the politics of today seem quaint and civilized by comparison. Thurmond and like-thinking bigots came together in 1948 to form the States’ Rights (or Dixiecrat) Party in the hope of defeating Truman by splitting the Democratic vote. Most Southern leaders ignored the call to arms, leaving the field to extremists like the Rev. Jonathan Ellsworth Perkins, author of “The Jews Have Got the Atom Bomb!,” and the Texas politician Lloyd E. Price, who assailed colonial New Englanders for bringing Africa’s “howling, screaming savages” to the Americas. When the convention nominated Thurmond for president, he warned that there were “not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to . . . admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” Thurmond took four Southern states, but Truman won the election.
Neither man tried hard to mend fences. Thurmond remained a Democrat in name only, winning a Senate seat several years later. Whether for spite or political advantage — Crespino’s account is vague here — he abandoned all things liberal, especially unions, by embracing an extreme free-market philosophy to go with his racist agenda. The political divorce became official in 1964, when Thurmond threw his support to the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in an election that redefined American conservatism and resurrected the Republican Party in the South. What Thurmond offered Republicans, Crespino argues, was not just a strategy to attract disaffected white Democrats, but also a business-friendly, union-free, well-armed, white-dominated vision of the future. Strom Thurmond — not Goldwater, not Reagan — was America’s first true Sun Belt conservative.
It’s an intriguing thesis taken a bit too far. Most of the evidence comes from a string of Thurmond speeches showing that he framed his vision before it became common fare. What’s missing is evidence that anyone of importance was aware of, much less energized by, what he said. While Republican strategists viewed Thurmond as an undeniable asset in attracting certain voters, they also thought him a kook. Indeed, Crespino himself portrays the senator’s national constituency as a “misshapen collection” of Dixiecrats, John Birchers, far-right business types, and Christian fundamentalists. Over time, Thurmond did moderate his views on racial issues, a necessity in a state where African-Americans were voting in larger numbers. He didn’t expect to win them over, but rather to keep them from storming the polls to defeat him.
His last political campaign, in 1996, showed a political fossil unwilling to let go. At an event in his beloved hometown, the 93-year-old senator recounted the glories of Col. William Travis, defender of the Alamo, who had refused to surrender with “3,000 Russians threatening to attack.” South Carolinians barely noticed; he was Good Ol’ Strom. It had been the same three decades earlier, when Thurmond, a well-known womanizer, married a local beauty queen one-third his age who had sent him a cheery note volunteering to work on his campaign. (“I just wish I were old enough to vote!” she purred.) But it did come as something of a shock when a retired African-American schoolteacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams came forward after Thurmond’s death to claim that Good Ol’ Strom was her father. The story was true, and some criticized Washington-Williams for not revealing the details sooner to disgrace Thurmond and end his political career.
It wasn’t that simple, Crespino says. Hypocrisy aside, Thurmond had maintained a relationship with his daughter, quietly financing her education and those of her children, and regularly bringing her to Washington as “an old family friend.” It smacked of paternalism, no doubt, and placed Thurmond in the lurid Southern tradition of white men fathering children with powerless African-American women. But it could have been worse: Thurmond was no deadbeat dad. Today, the marble base holding the 17-foot-tall statue of Strom Thurmond on the South Carolina Capitol grounds includes the names of all his children, white and black — a testament to the tangled racial history he left behind.