Strom Thurmond: From Segregationist to Servant of the Regime
Robert Hampton, American Renaissance, December 22, 2020
Joseph Crespino, Strom Thurmond’s America, Hill and Wang, 2012, 416 pages, $32.81.
“When Strom Thurmond ran for president, [Mississippi] 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 the years, either.”
In 2002, then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott upset many people with those remarks. They were meant as a friendly tribute for a man who had just turned 100. However, journalists turned it into an endorsement of segregation. Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential run was defined by segregation, and despite his decades of later service, he never overcame his reputation as a Southern reactionary.
This reputation was undeserved. The South Carolinian truckled to the civil rights revolution and stopped defending white interests. Though he never apologized for supporting segregation, it was because he thought he didn’t have to. His actions were more important than words. He also wasn’t strongly committed to his positions; he was a politician who adapted to new conditions. Like many Southern leaders, Thurmond “evolved” away from protecting white interests.
Joseph Crespino’s Strom Thurmond’s America shows how one of the South’s most ardent segregationists ushered in neutered Sunbelt conservatism. Dr. Crespino, a history professor at Emory University, remains relatively objective despite his obvious distaste for Thurmond’s views.
James Strom Thurmond was born in Edgefield County, South Carolina in 1902 to a politically connected family. His county was home to Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a powerful populist who fervently defended the interests of white Southerners. The Thurmond family were friends with Tillman and the young Strom was strongly influenced by him.
A nine-year-old Thurmond learned a valuable lesson in politics when he watched a debate between Governor Cole Blease and his challenger Ira Jones, a family friend. The political establishment despised Blease for his rabble-rousing and corruption, but white South Carolinians adored his electric speaking style. Blease defeated the bland Jones by appealing to white interests; Thurmond would do the same in his own career.
Thurmond graduated from Clemson University and followed his father into the legal profession. In 1925, he fathered a daughter with a black servant, but kept the child a secret. The daughter revealed her parentage only after Thurmond’s death in 2003. Thurmond had financially supported her, and his family accepted her after she came forward.
Thurmond rose in South Carolina politics in the 1930s, and eventually became a state circuit judge, a position that gave him influence. During the Second World War, he was an officer in the 82nd Airborne; he won the Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and other honors. He opposed totalitarianism, but not racial segregation.
In 1946, Thurmond became governor of South Carolina. Initially, many considered him a racial moderate. When cabdrivers lynched black murder suspect Willie Earle, Thurmond called it a “disgrace to the state,” and national media praised him. (An all-white jury acquitted the lynch gang.) Governor Thurmond gave more money to black schools, the better to defend “separate but equal.”
In 1948, President Harry Truman announced his support for civil rights legislation and added this plank to the Democratic platform. Many Southern leaders were disgusted. Georgia Sen. Richard Russell, a powerful Democrat, warned that Truman’s plans would “destroy segregation and compel intermingling and miscegenation of the races of the South.” Thurmond emerged as one of the region’s most outspoken critics of Truman and was the presidential nominee for the “States’ Rights Democrats.”
Thurmond despised the nickname most people used for the party, the “Dixiecrats.” He wanted a party that would oppose federal encroachment and Communist subversion, not just defend Southern segregation. That said, Thurmond didn’t shy from crude racial appeals. “There’re not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches,” he said. (He played down those remarks years later).
However, Thurmond also tried to appear moderate. His original acceptance speech for the “Dixiecrat” nomination was a strong affirmation of Southern rights and identity, including references to the “war between the states” and Yankee interference. But he also appealed to conservatives outside the South, praising the Constitution and pledging to defend it from radicals and Communism. Thurmond also distanced himself from “extreme” supporters and denied being a “race hater and a reactionary.” “I’m a friend of Negroes and I’m a liberal,” he said on the campaign trail.
The Dixiecrats only won 2.4 percent of the national vote but carried four states; Thurmond had become a political force. In 1950, he ran for the Senate, portraying incumbent Olin Johnston as a Truman toady and a racial progressive who pardoned black criminals. Thurmond lost in 1950, but the same tactics succeeded in 1954. The victory was in a special election that forced him to run for re-election in 1956 and again in 1960. Three elections in six years is a difficult challenge, but he won by opposing integration.
Thurmond wrote the initial draft of the 1956 Southern Manifesto, which most Southern lawmakers signed. The Manifesto proclaimed unwavering opposition to racial integration. In 1957, Thurmond undertook the longest filibuster in Senate history, 25 hours, to oppose – unsuccessfully – the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Though this made him a hero in parts of the former Confederacy, it also angered Southern Democrats, who worried Thurmond was only provoking more extreme legislation. It was a significant step in Thurmond’s journey towards the Republican Party.
After the filibuster, the South Carolinian was the preeminent segregationist, but that wasn’t the only issue he cared about. He adopted many standard conservative positions. He supported low-tax, anti-union policies that drew businesses to the Sunbelt. He also supported an expansive defense budget while railing against excessive government spending. He invoked small government, the Constitution, and liberty, but dropped explicit support for whites. Though he still defended segregation, he used legal arguments about states’ rights rather than appeals to white interests.
By 1964, Thurmond had not publicly supported a Democratic presidential candidate since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the party establishment was eager to defeat him in the 1966 Senate primary. However, Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater believed Thurmond and the Southern conservatives he represented were natural Republicans. Goldwater had credibility in the South because he opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, albeit on libertarian rather than racial grounds. The Goldwater-Thurmond alliance shaped the postwar American Right.
In 1964, Thurmond announced he was now a Republican and campaigned for Goldwater, helping the Republican win five Southern states. (Goldwater won only one state outside of the South, his home state of Arizona.) Though the campaign failed, it showed that white Southerners would ditch their ancestral party for the Party of Lincoln if the GOP defended Southern interests.
Thurmond fought civil rights laws throughout the 60s but always lost. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed with strong majorities. Thurmond defeated open-housing legislation in 1966 but failed to stop it two years after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Thurmond said the ensuing “mass hysteria” ensured the bill’s success, and said it represented moral and legal relativism.
However, he found another issue that appealed to whites in both North and South: law and order. White Northerners had soured on “civil rights” because of rising crime and black riots. Thurmond now had a popular base among Northern whites – as did Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
In the 1968 presidential election, Wallace and GOP nominee Richard Nixon both called for law and order. Thurmond, disappointing many supporters, endorsed Nixon. One prominent Wallace supporter said Thurmond was “dividing the white vote.” Nixon won South Carolina and several other Southern states because of his tough stance on crime and supposed opposition to forced school integration. Of course, the Republicans didn’t outright say they opposed it, merely claiming to support “freedom of choice.” White liberals in South Carolina overwhelmingly voted for Nixon rather than Wallace, but Nixon’s general election victory and Wallace’s strong third-place finish demonstrated the viability of a populist conservatism that could secure white interests.
Nixon did not deliver. He expanded affirmative action, didn’t stop school integration, and couldn’t get Southern Supreme Court nominees past the Senate. Nonetheless, Thurmond never wavered in his support for Nixon.
State politics explains Thurmond’s weakness. In 1970, Democratic governor Robert McNair told citizens to accept desegregation. South Carolina allowed governors to serve only one term, and McNair’s designated successor for the election that year was fellow Democrat John C. West.
Thurmond backed Albert Watson, a Democrat-turned-Republican congressman. Watson used combative racial appeals to rally whites during the election. Parent riots and student brawls over integration occurred during the campaign, which journalists tied to Watson. White suburbanites felt uncomfortable backing Watson and John West became governor. Thurmond had suffered a political defeat.
Thurmond decided his political future depended on abandoning populist conservatism and avoiding “racism.” Before his 1972 re-election campaign, he hired a black staffer, wrote an article for Ebony saying he wasn’t racist, said black and white Southerners had more in common with each other than with the rest of the nation, and promoted his own “accomplishments on behalf of blacks.” Blacks weren’t fooled, but white suburbanites now thought it was acceptable to vote for Thurmond. He easily won re-election.
Thurmond’s changes went beyond rhetoric. He defended Nixon and attacked draft dodgers but was suddenly subdued on busing. He said he was sensitive to those who accused busing foes of racism and claimed that he was just as committed as liberals to “freedom and justice for all.” This approach may have been effective; most radical desegregation proposals were toned down.
Thurmond moved further away from white identity in the late 70s and 80s. He backed voting rights for the District of Columbia, a liberal cause that earned him the praise of the South Carolina NAACP, which said he was doing a fine job “representing us.” Thurmond made sure to help black appointees to federal positions and personally congratulated civil rights activist John Lewis on his appointment to director of a federal voting project. A federal voting project run by a black would have horrified Thurmond in the 1960s.
Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential victory could have meant a return to form for Thurmond. Dr. Crespino writes of a conversation two long-time Thurmond advisers had after Reagan’s election. One reminded the other of how he had predicted that “somebody’s going to run for president on the platform that this is a white man’s country” and that this was what Reagan had done. The other adviser – who turned out to be correct about both Reagan and his old boss – said he was afraid the new president would “turn around and kiss ass.”
At the start of Reagan’s tenure, Thurmond opposed reauthorizing the punitive requirements of the Voting Rights Act. Powerful figures within the GOP and his own circles told him “it’s time to go with the flow.” Reagan also backed down; he reinstituted tax exemptions for whites-only private schools but retreated after journalists criticized him.
Thurmond followed Reagan’s example and went with the flow. He played nice during hearings to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and voted for it. His onetime ally, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, led the opposition. Thurmond also voted for the King federal holiday. Once again, Sen. Helms led the opposition in the Senate.
Dr. Crespino says the two Southern senators were close friends who shared the same commitment to a strong national defense, limited government, and low taxes. However, they broke on white interests. Helms defended white interests until the end while Thurmond turned tail. Dr. Crespino attributes this difference on racial politics to South Carolina’s larger black population, suggesting that Thurmond cared more about power than his own people.
Immigration is an example that is unaccountably absent in Strom Thurmond’s America. Thurmond voted against the 1965 Immigration Act, but voted for Reagan’s amnesty in 1986. Helms was not in Congress in 1965 but voted against amnesty despite being a close Reagan ally.
Thurmond continued to serve in the Senate until shortly after his 100th birthday. His effectiveness declined along with mind and body. In a final betrayal, he supported removing the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina Capitol in the 1990s. In fairness, his advisors may simply have claimed this was his stance; Thurmond himself didn’t know his own position until reporters told him. It was an embarrassing coda for America’s third longest-serving senator.
Mr. Lott may have been right that we wouldn’t have these problems today if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. However, everything he fought for at that time he later abandoned. He became a prominent Senate Republican, but at the expense of whites. He embraced the civil rights revolution, a force he built his career opposing, just to stay in office. He kept the faith on school prayer and the military budget but collapsed on race and immigration.
Thurmond didn’t want to upset white suburbanites who were uncomfortable with accusations of “racism.” This is still a problem for Republicans. The suburbs were decisive in Joe Biden’s apparent victory. Whites flee diversity, but don’t want to be reminded of it. They want to enjoy what they have and not be called names – just like Thurmond.
Thurmond promised the South the GOP would become the white man’s party. Instead, it remained the businessman’s party. The Wallace supporters were right that Thurmond “got took a little bit” by the GOP. Of course, he didn’t suffer for it; the rest of us did.