Thurmond, (James) Strom

views updated

Thurmond, (James) Strom

(b. 5 December 1902 in Edgefield, South Carolina; d. 26 June 2003 in Edgefield, South Carolina), governor, U. S. Senator, States’ Rights Democratic Party (“Dixiecrats”) presidential candidate, and a leader in developing the Republican Party in the South.

Born into a deeply rooted and politically active family, Thurmond grew up in a rural county bordering Georgia that had a history of political violence but also produced ten South Carolina governors. His parents were John William Thurmond, a lawyer who managed campaigns for Governor Benjamin Ryan (“Pitchfork Ben”) Tillman, and Eleanor Gertrude (Strom) Thurmond, a homemaker. Thurmond and his five siblings were raised as devout Baptists. When Thurmond was four his father moved the family to a farm outside the town to instill in his children an appreciation of the land and the virtues of farm work. Thurmond milked the cows and hitched the horses to the wagon every Sunday morning for the ride into town for church. He attended public schools, graduated after completing the tenth grade, and at the age of sixteen enrolled in Clemson College (now Clemson University), then operated as a military school. He ran on the cross-country team, practiced public speaking for hours to overcome a boyhood stammer, and was noted in his senior yearbook as a “ladies man of the first order.” A few weeks after attending Thurmond’s graduation from Clemson in 1923 with a BS degree in agriculture, his father wrote him, “Do not forget that ‘skill and integrity’ are the keys to success.”

Thurmond returned to the Edgefield area, where he taught school, coached sports, and developed a summer camp for farm youth. His ability to call each of the 200 boys by name reflected a photographic memory that made an observer predict that he would one day become governor. In October 1925 the local weekly newspaper wished him success in a trip he took to Florida to seek his fortune in the land boom there. Five days later, a sixteen-year-old African-American maid in the Thurmond household named Carrie Butler gave birth to Thurmond’s daughter. The child was sent to live with the mother’s sister in Pennsylvania six months later, an arrangement facilitated by Thurmond’s father.

Thurmond considered his father “the best lawyer” he ever knew and began “reading law” in his office as preparation for the state bar examination. Meanwhile, he was elected county superintendent of education. He soon launched a countywide adult literacy program that offered dozens of teachers extra pay for teaching at night in racially segregated settings. When an opening developed for Edge-field County’s seat in the state Senate, the twenty-nine-year-old Thurmond filed his candidacy for the office. He won the election after attending the 1932 Democratic National Convention and supporting the presidential nomination of Franklin D. Roosevelt. When the incumbent circuit judge died unexpectedly, Thurmond campaigned one-on-one among his fellow legislators, who are responsible for electing state judges in South Carolina. He won an upset victory in 1938 and became the state’s youngest circuit court judge. He then set his sights on the governor’s office.

In early 1941 Thurmond first met fifteen-year-old Essie Mae Washington, his illegitimate daughter, who was visiting Edgefield for the first time to attend a family funeral with her birth mother. Washington’s mother introduced the teenager to her father on that occasion. Father and daughter maintained a clandestine relationship for the rest of Thurmond’s life.

World War II interrupted Thurmond’s plans for his future political career. He volunteered for active duty at age thirty-nine on 8 December 1941, the day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel as a paratrooper with the Eighty-second Airborne Division. On D-Day, 6 June 1944, Thurmond flew into Normandy, France, on a glider behind the German lines. He received the Bronze Star and seventeen other military decorations for his service during the war. After his military discharge, he returned to South Carolina and ran successfully for governor in 1946 as a New Deal Democrat.

Thurmond’s bold inaugural speech in January 1947 expressed a progressive and realistic assessment of South Carolina’s needs, reflecting the spirit of many World War II veterans who returned to the South with a vision for change and reform. “We are on the threshold of a new era,” he declared as he called for ending the poll tax and the development of a system of permanent voter registration. The poll tax served as a device to remove blacks from any meaningful role in elective politics; one had to pay the tax in order to register at a time when most blacks were unable to afford to do so. Thurmond also advocated a state minimum wage, stronger child labor laws, and “working conditions which make for health, decency and the welfare of our workers,” including cafeterias and temperature controls in textile mills, the state’s dominant industry.

Thurmond called for revising an outdated state constitution and developing a system of county governments. He advocated industrial development, free treatment for those who suffered from sexually transmitted diseases, and protection of natural resources from polluters. He also proposed free textbooks, expansion of opportunities for vocational education and “more attention given to Negro education.” He asserted that if blacks were provided with better educational facilities, “not only will much be accomplished in human values, but we shall raise our per capita income as well as the educational standing of the state.”

Meanwhile, Thurmond had quietly arranged and paid for his daughter to attend South Carolina State College (now South Carolina State University), a historically black institution, in 1946. Soon after taking office, he oversaw the vigorous prosecution of thirty-one defendants in what turned out to be the state’s last lynching. And on 7 November 1947, at the age of forty-four, he married Jean Crouch, a twenty-one-year-old beauty queen who seemed to capture both his heart and the affection of the people of South Carolina.

Thurmond soon challenged the report issued that month by President Harry S Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights, gradually shedding his progressive image and emerging as the South’s most outspoken defender of its entrenched system of racial segregation. In 1948 he became the leader and presidential candidate of the Dixiecrats, the sobriquet given to the States Rights’ Democratic Party by a headline writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his Dixiecrat acceptance speech, he declared, “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” He won four states, thirty-nine electoral votes, and over a million popular votes.

After losing a bitter contest for the Senate to the incumbent, Olin D. Johnston, in 1950, Thurmond practiced law in Aiken, South Carolina. He then ran for the Senate as a write-in candidate four years later after the incumbent, Burnet Rhett Maybank, died unexpectedly after running unopposed in the Democratic primary (there was no Republican candidate). Thurmond made history as the only successful write-in candidate for either house of Congress as of the early 2000s.

Beginning with his record-setting filibuster of twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, Thurmond consistently denounced such federal intervention. He played a leading role in developing the 1956 Southern Manifesto, which was overwhelmingly supported by southern members of Congress. The manifesto denounced the Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation decision, Brown v. Board of Education, as a “clear abuse of judicial powers” and commended “the motives of those states which have declared their intention to resist integration by any lawful means.”

After his wife Jean died of brain cancer in 1960, Thurmond became more strident in his public pronouncements. When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thurmond called it “a tragic day for America, when Negro agitators, spurred on by communist enticements to promote racial strife, can cause the United States Senate to be steamrolled into passing the worst, most unreasonable and unconstitutional legislation that has even been considered by the Congress.”

Thurmond said of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1965 that the passage of the Voting Rights Act “shows that King must always have an agitation objective lest he end up in the street one day without a drum to beat or a headline to make.” When the act came up for renewal in 1972, Thurmond called it “unfortunate that the Congress ever enacted such an unconstitutional piece of legislation.” Those two pieces of landmark legislation, however, began to transform life in the South, and their combined impact moved Thurmond in a different direction. A rambunctious Democrat for his first ten years in the Senate, Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964 to campaign actively across the South for Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate. Gold-water had voted against that year’s Civil Rights Act and launched the “southern strategy” that appealed to racially conservative white voters in the region, tens of thousands of whom followed Thurmond into the Republican Party.

In 1968 Thurmond made his most lasting mark on history. He first played the key role in blocking the confirmation of Associate Justice Abe Fortas to succeed Earl Warren as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. After a pledge from Richard Nixon to appoint strict constructionists to the Supreme Court, Thurmond put pressure on the southern delegates to support Nixon at the 1968 Republican National Convention. Almost three-fourths of them voted for Nixon on the first ballot, providing him with a narrow margin of victory over Governors Nelson Rockefeller of New York and Ronald Reagan of California. In the fall Thurmond campaigned head-on in the South against a third-party segregationist, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who lost plurality leads over Nixon in Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Their combined electoral votes were greater than Nixon’s margin of victory in the 1968 election. Nixon kept his promise; his four Supreme Court appointees included a future Chief Justice, William Rehnquist.

A month after the election, the sixty-six-year-old Thurmond married twenty-two-year-old Nancy Janice Moore, a former Miss South Carolina. In the next ten years they had four children. The couple separated in 1991. In 1993 their older daughter was killed by a drunk driver in a hit-and-run accident; this tragedy led Thurmond to actively campaign against drunk driving.

After one of Thurmond’s protégés, Congressman Albert Watson, ran what some Republicans called a racist campaign for governor and lost in 1970, Thurmond recognized the impact of the expanded black vote. He broke precedent in his state by hiring a black staff member, Thomas Moss, as state director for the Voter Education Project. Moss helped Thurmond to fully extend his legendary service to constituents to blacks and introduced him to issues of special interest to them. Thurmond initiated the first federal funds earmarked for historically black colleges, voted to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a federal holiday, and supported a twenty-five-year extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982.

Thurmond later chaired the Senate Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. In January 2003, a month after his hundredth birthday, he retired from the Senate, leaving records not only for the longest filibuster but also for being the oldest and longest-serving United States senator. Thurmond died of natural causes in June 2003 after a period of several weeks of poor health. He had planned his funeral beforehand, choosing a liberal Democratic colleague, Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware, as his chief eulogist. Biden told of getting to know Thurmond during their thirty years together in the Senate. “Strom knew America was changing,” he said, “and that there was a lot he didn’t understand about that change. But he also saw the people of South Carolina changing as well, and he knew the time had come to change himself. But I believe the change came to him easily. I believe he welcomed it, because I watched others of his era fight that change and never ultimately change.” Thurmond is buried in Willowbrook Cemetery in Edgefield.

Six months after Thurmond’s death, Essie Mae Washington-Williams came forward at the age of seventy-eight to claim her heritage as Thurmond’s daughter. Strom Thurmond, Jr., the senator’s older son, quickly announced his family’s acceptance of his half-sister. Washington-Williams’s 2005 book, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond, revealed that her relationship with her father spanned six decades. Two of her four children attended the Thurmond family reunion in Edgefield in October 2005. The reunion chairperson said, “We were so glad they could attend. After all, we’re all cousins.” That same fall, Edgefield’s Strom Thurmond High School Rebels, with an overwhelmingly African-American roster, won South Carolina’s state triple-A football championship.

With his switch to the Republican Party in 1964 and his decisive role in blocking the confirmation of Fortas as well as helping to elect Nixon in 1968, Thurmond played a critical role in shaping and developing the “southern strategy” that transformed the party of Abraham Lincoln and changed the direction of the Supreme Court. His 1948 Dixiecrat campaign struck a psychological body blow to the Democratic “solid South,” opening wide the door leading to the growth of the Republican Party in the region and a position of dominance in the opening years of the twenty-first century.

Thurmond’s papers are housed in the Strom Thurmond Institute at Clemson University. His one book is The Faith We Have Not Kept (1968). Biographies of Thurmond include Alberta Morel Lachicotte, Rebel Senator: Strom Thurmond of South Carolina (1966); Nadine Cohodas, Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change (1993); Joseph C. Ellers, Strom Thurmond: The Public Man (1993); Jack Bass and Marilyn Thompson, Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond (1998); and Bass and Thompson, Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond (2005). See also James G. Banks, “Strom Thurmond and the Revolt Against Modernity,” unpublished dissertation, Kent State University (1970). Obituaries are in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Atlanta Journal-Constitution (all 27 June 2003).

Jack Bass

About this article

Thurmond, (James) Strom

Updated About content Print Article