This essay was presented at our 2019 Summer School on The New South.
James Strom Thurmond, or Strom, was born on December 5, 1902 in Edgefield, South Carolina. This historic county was also the home of Francis Hugh Wardlaw, the author of the South Carolina Ordinance of Secession, and Preston Brooks, who caned Charles Sumner in 1856. These three are actually all buried in the same cemetery, resting in the same soil. Strom’s grandfather, also from Edgefield, was named George Washington Thurmond and fought in the War Between the States. According to George Washington Thurmond’s obituary, “He was ever ready to respond to the demands of his country, and in the dark days of reconstruction, was as ready for duty as any younger man. He was noted for his sound judgement, truthful, manly character, and many noble qualities of mind and heart.” His headstone includes the phrase “…Did not invade the rights of others, nor allow others to invade his rights.” Allegedly, he walked home to South Carolina through Virginia and North Carolina after the war. This kind of personal and local history contributed greatly to Strom’s conception of Southern identity and honor.
Before delving into Strom’s life and career, it is necessary to understand the time in which he lived. Being born in 1902, Strom was not so far out from the days of Reconstruction and was raised in a time when campaigning to former Confederates was still a thing. Strom once had the following to say about the War Between the States:
“For many years after the War Between the States, or people were crushed and poverty-stricken. Their wealth and their economy had been wiped out by a tragic war, from which they sought to recover without the benefit of a Marshall Plan. In their effort to achieve prosperity, two major obstacles stood in their way — one-sided tariff restrictions and discriminatory freight rates. The effect of these handicaps was to keep the South in a colonial status, producing raw materials at low cost and buying back finished products at high cost…For many years we have struggled under a 39% handicap in competing with northern and eastern shippers, because of discriminatory freight rates.”
Thurmond’s reference to this effect of the War show that he was greatly concerned by the forced economic retardation of the South, how it was “punished with poverty.” This system was obviously rigged to keep the South stagnant and this was the South that Strom was born into. But to fully understand his perception we must begin with his father, John William Thurmond. John Thurmond was a lawyer, campaign manager, and a close friend of Ben Tillman. John’s political aspirations were cut short while he was serving as solicitor, after he shot an unarmed political enemy named Will Harris. Thurmond’s story was that as he was sitting at his desk in Edgefield, Harris approached him and called him a “God-damned dog and scoundrel,” then moved his hand as if he were going for a gun. John Thurmond shot him through the heart and was found not guilty. Serving on John Thurmond’s defense team was Ben Tillman’s nephew James, who later went on to shoot the editor of The State newspaper, N.G. Gonzales.
Because Ben Tillman was a Populist that openly talked about lynching, these ties to the Tillmans lead many to assume that Strom Thurmond was of a similar character, but these assumptions are unfounded and not based on the whole truth. Strom was a largely self made man, and he thought the most important lesson he learned from Tillman was the importance of shaking hands. He actually ran against Tillman’s son for state senate. And honestly, there’s still more that we can learn from Ben Tillman. For example, even though most people only see Ben Tillman as a racist demagogue, the reality is that he was somewhat progressive for his time. The Tillman Act, for example, passed in 1907 in an effort to ban corporate contributions in federal political races. After Tillman’s death, W.E.B DuBois published in an NAACP journal that “…it is our duty to understand this man in relation to his time. He represented the rebound of the unlettered white proletariat of the South from the oppression of slavery to new industrial and political freedom.”
Strom was driven by a love for the South and a strong desire to do better than the generation before him. He grew up on a small farm and worked in a textile mill in between school sessions. He graduated from Clemson in 1923 with a major in Agricultural Science, taught school for six years, then became County Superintendent of Education. As superintendent in Edgefield, beginning in 1929, he began an adult reading and writing program that decreased black illiteracy in the county by one-fourth. He studied law at night, got elected as a State Senator, then was elected as a Circuit Judge.
Despite being exempt from military service in WWII because he was a judge, Strom volunteered for active duty the day war was declared. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division for the invasion of Europe, served in all battles of the First Army which fought through France, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia and Germany. On D-Day, he flew in a glider, filled with a small amount of men and a jeep, behind enemy lines. These gliders usually resulted in high casualties and Strom’s plane apparently crashed but all the men survived. They met with some other recon groups and he helped capture four German paratroopers. He received numerous medals and awards, even from the French and Belgians. He was particularly proud of his participation in the Battle of the Bulge and once extended an invitation to South Carolina veterans of the battle to join him in the unveiling of a monument in Belgium.
When Strom returned to South Carolina, he got back on the Circuit Bench and was elected governor in 1946 over ten opponents. Just weeks after his inauguration, a black man named Willie Earle was lynched and Strom stood out in the headlines for working closely with law enforcement to resolve the case and apprehend all the suspects. He stated the case was “not only regrettable, but…a blot on the state of South Carolina” and called lynching an offense “against decency, law and the democratic way of living…” Around this time, he started building a network of support by aligning himself with organizations like Winthrop University and other South Carolina colleges, the Baptist Church, the Red Cross, and various veteran clubs.
Strom also began growing suspicious of Harry Truman and the Democrat party around 1948. At the Democratic convention that year in Philadelphia, the party fractured over a number of issues. Truman pushed a platform aimed at civil-rights and proposed an end to the poll tax, a federal law against lynching, and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission (known as the FEPC).
The States’ Rights Democrats formed after a faction of Southerners left because they felt Truman had betrayed the South. As Strom put it, many Southerners felt they were being treated as a “doormat on which Presidential candidates may wipe their political shoes.” Their simple message found reception all over the country. In response to their growing popularity, conspiracy theories emerged that the Dixiecrats were formed by big oil money. In 1947, a Supreme Court case left the issue of tidelands wide open after a dispute between the federal government and California. For many years, California had been leasing oil concessions to private contractors on land that had immense oil and gas deposits – land that the government wanted access to. The journalist Thomas Sancton stated the party was formed by “investing and managing communities” that consisted of “the oil and cattle men of Texas, the oil men and sugar planters of Louisiana, the mercantile and shipping interests of New Orleans, Houston, Memphis, and Atlanta, the steel and coal operators of Alabama, the textile manufacturers of the whole South Atlantic region.”
Despite intriguing stories like this, Strom declared he never saw a dime of any oil money, and insisted that the States’ Righters saw themselves as a National party, looking to prevent something like secession. The media, however, did an effective job of keeping them regional in appearance. The party collected over a million votes and went on to win the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
After the election of 1948, Strom Thurmond set out to try and repair his image within the black communities of South Carolina. He pardoned a black man that was facing an unfair manslaughter conviction and led a campaign to raise funds for Benedict College, a historically black college that fell on hard times. He declared April 5 Booker T. Washington Day. He gave a strong speech to the American Legion, declaring his intolerance for the KKK or any other organization that targeted black people. A stir was also caused when he appointed a black Charleston doctor to the state hospital board, the first time since Reconstruction that a black man was given a public position in South Carolina.
South Carolina had a law which forbid governors at the time from serving more than one consecutive term. Strom ran for the Senate in 1950, lost, and spent some time practicing law before opening up a bank, the Aiken Federal Savings and Loan Association. During this period, his firm handled everything from murders to divorce and Strom personally helped the Atomic Energy Commission buy cheap private land near the Savannah River Plant. Strom also supported Eisenhower during the 1952 election, which was practically an act of political suicide in South Carolina at the time.
In 1954, Strom decided it was time to get back into politics. Because of his support for Eisenhower in 1952, the South Carolina Democratic Party blocked him from being nominated for Senator and he ran as a write-in candidate. He won, and became the first ever person elected to the Senate by a write-in ballot. This launched a career in the Senate which lasted until his retirement in 2003.
In 1960, Strom again voted Republican, but this time for Richard Nixon. This move was parallel to the days of Reconstruction, when the Old Democratic South backed the Republican Hayes in exchange to end Reconstruction and withdraw troops from the South. Thurmond urged the “New” Democratic South to back Nixon, so that they could put an end to the new Reconstruction being pushed by Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy.
Strom thought that Kennedy was soft on Communism and crime, and even claimed that he believed Kennedy had ties to the Mafia. His opposition to the Democratic party’s descent into the left hit a high note when he wrestled Senator Ralph Yarborough outside the Senate chamber in 1964. Yarborough was a liberal Texan, of the Lyndon Johnson mode, that Strom viewed as a “turncoat.” Strom pinned the Democrat to the floor and held him down until the two were separated.
By 1964, Strom was done with the Democrats and supported Barry Goldwater for president. His qualms with the Democrats were that they backed down from invading Cuba during the Russian Missile Crisis, that they were plunging America into unwinnable conditions in Vietnam, and that they were turning America into a welfare state. This was a calculated move done in part to save Strom’s career. Now, race would no longer be a campaign issue. Instead, he talked foreign policy, the threat of Communism, denounced Vietnam, attacked inflation, and generally spoke in support of the elderly, people on fixed incomes, and ordinary people who were black or white. Just a couple of years before this party switch, he had been building his reputation as a conservative by working with other senators to propose an amendment permitting prayer and Bible reading in schools. This came just after the Supreme Court case Engel v. Vitale, which said reading pray in public schools violated the First Amendment.
Probably the most important turn in his career as when Strom helped Nixon and the Republicans carry South Carolina in 1968. Nixon was facing a tough third party candidate in George Wallace, who claimed “segregation now and segregation forever” and carried Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana that year. South Carolina, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1976, has been a solid red state ever since. Nixon eventually went on to write that where most people saw a segregationist in Strom, he saw a statesman.
By 1970, many of Strom’s decisions mirrored his efforts to remove race as a political tool. He hired a black aid named Thomas Moss, who had experience as an NAACP voting drive leader, which was the first time a black person had ever been hired by a South Carolina member of Congress; Strom was also a major supporter of Clarence Thomas’s appointment to the Supreme Court. He appointed Matthew Perry to the U.S. Court of Military Appeals, the first time a black man from the Deep South was nominated for the federal judiciary. As head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Strom traveled the world and became a more thoughtful person. Despite having such a long, diverse career, many people only remember Strom for segregation.
THE ELECTION OF 1948
Most people assume that Strom and several other Southerners walked out of that Democratic convention in 1948 because of the issue of race. Strom actually never walked out and actually wanted to support Richard Russell’s nomination that year. But a closer examination shows that there was a lot more at stake in the election of 1948 than “Civil Rights.” The group that left formed a coalition called States’ Rights Democrats, and they were later dubbed “Dixiecrats” by Bill Weisner, telegraph editor of The Charlotte News. Strom Thurmond was nominated as their presidential candidate mainly because of his progressive image at the time, with Fielding J. Wright from Mississippi nominated as his VP.
The assumption that the States’ Rights Democrats formed for racist purposes alone is not based on reality. H.L. Mencken covered all of the candidates in the 1948 election, and was probably the least partisan journalist on the scene of the conventions. He mentioned that he hoped the politicians running would be “led out to a pasture and shot” and predicted a Truman victory because “voters are boobs who distrust real intelligence and throw their caps for the candidate most closely approximating their collective IQs.”
Mencken described Strom Thurmond at the Democratic convention several times and was mostly positive. Mencken referred to Strom as a “gentleman” and “soldier,” and stated Strom was “soft in tone, with no hint of demagogy.” Even though Mencken was critical of many things about the South – the Scopes trial, the Leo Frank lynching, and its support for the New Deal – he was even more opposed to the massive growth of federal power. He actually argued that the Dixiecrats deserved more attention, that the movement was not just regional, and stated that many intelligent Southerners were “painfully aware of what went on in the seventies, and they are naturally fearful of a repetition, with northerner jobholders, most of them dishonest and nearly all of them jackasses, substituted for the carpetbaggers of the first canto. They believe they have some Civil Rights, too…”
Mencken would have voted for the Dixiecrats if had they been included on the Maryland ballot and when discussing their Southern supporters, he wrote: “I must confess that I sympathize with them, despite my life-long devotion to exposing their deficiencies.” Here was a man that had no particular love for the South and who was committed to real journalism, trying to show that the States’ Rights Democrats had a serious proposition for America.
A closer, unbiased examination shows that race was not really the issue for the Dixiecrats. Rather, as Mencken noted, they were taking a stand against a government that had been rapidly expanding its own powers up to that time. Strom himself had lived through two world wars and had put his life on the line to fight fascism. He also understood the growing threat of Communism in the post-war period and was trying to sound the alarm for Americans everywhere. In fact, the “Progressive” candidate running that year was Henry Wallace, a self-professed Communist.
The Civil Rights proposals in 1948 were also filled with clauses that greatly expanded some basic functions of government in a way eerily similar to Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia. During Truman’s tenure, the CIA and NSA were created. On the world stage, Mao Zedong came to power in 1947 and Israel was created in 1948. These were all key factors that made America’s assignment with destiny at that moment a crucial topic, so Strom was not wrong for venting his concerns about totalitarian governments.
Strom’s points on the Democratic party platform are also irrefutable. Take the issue of the poll tax, for example. This is often identified as a racist tactic by Southern states to prevent black people from voting, when California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin all had poll taxes at one point or another. This functioned as a form of revenue for states. By 1948, only seven states had poll tax laws and Strom himself had been in favor of repealing it in South Carolina. He opposed government involvement in the poll tax because it would give them the power to “exercise control over the ballot boxes of the nation” and that the States would “thus lose their effective voice in that national legislative halls as they did in Reconstruction Days when ballot boxes were surrounded by Federal bayonets.”
The issue of a federal law against lynching was opposed because Strom believed it had virtually been an extinct practice by 1948 that most Americans looked down upon. He pointed out that it had never necessarily been a particularly Southern action and that in at least one year, 75% of the people lynched across the United States were white. The Willie Earle case also shows that Strom found lynching repugnant and that he was clearly against it.
Next was the FEPC, which threatened to drastically change hiring processes for employers. Under new guidelines, employers lose the basic ability to hire or fire whomever they please. This bill was first proposed by Republican Senator Irving Ives, from New York and was literally modeled after a law created by Stalin called the “All Races Law.” According to Thurmond, Stalin was commissar of Nationalities of the time that he wrote this law and he used it as a means of advancing himself to supreme dictator of Soviet Russia. The proposed American program would forbid you to ask someone basic questions about their race, religion, skin color, or even where they were during WWI. Strom also pointed out that Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate for president in 1948 and Governor of New York, was one of the biggest supporters of the FEPC. Previously, Dewey had fought the efforts of Southern Governors to equalize freight rates and advocated the practice of charging as much as 39% more to move freight out of the South.
The issue of segregation is probably the least understood issue of this entire election year. Strom had been outspoken about his support segregation, and because the Dixiecrats had a plank in their platform dedicated to segregation, the automatic assumption is that this was the primary reason the Dixiecrats were created. But was it for racist reasons? Their plank actually stated they stood for segregation “and the integrity of the races.” Strom himself stated that thinking Southerners were well aware that good race relations were a key to a prosperous South. In a pamphlet about Truman’s Civil Rights program, he stated that a “little more practical help on economic lines, and a little less fallacious racial theory, would accomplish a great deal more for the improvement of the level of life and opportunity of all our people whatever race.”
The truth is that segregation was a Northern practice that was actually legalized first in the North and imposed on the South during Reconstruction. The Massachusetts case of Roberts vs. The City of Boston stated in 1849 that the general school committee of the city of Boston “have power, under the constitution and laws of this commonwealth, to make provision for the instruction of colored children, in separate schools established exclusively for them, and to prohibit their attendance upon the other schools.”
Most Americans also believe that black people fled to the North or West for more political and economic freedom, but clearly all of those cities have distinct racial lines. Harlem, Little Italy, and Chinatown are just a few examples of places that probably would not exist if it were not for this fact. There’s also verifiable evidence that black people experienced just as much violence in the North as anywhere else. In 1967, a Boston public school teacher named Jonathan Kozol wrote a book titled Death at an Early Age: Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools.
Kozol noted that young black students were called “animals” and the school was referred to as the “zoo.” He detailed that corporal punishments were being implemented, where students were beat with thin bamboo whips or rattans.The reason the book was called Death at an Early Age was that the author’s experience showed him that low expectations and poor treatment were psychologically damaging to young black students in Boston public schools.
Even the Empire State was guilty of such flagrant racism. In financing the Stuyvesant Town development to be built in New York City, a $50 million dollar postwar housing project covering nearly twenty blocks, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. insisted the mortgage contract carry a clause forbidding any black tenants into the apartments. In addition, you could read the Evening Star, which in February 25,1957 featured an article entitled “Chicago Is Called the Most Segregated.” The first paragraph had a Chicago human-relations expert saying it was the most segregated city in the United States. These are just a couple of examples, but it seems odd that these things were going on in the North so frequently, yet most people only pay attention to Little Rock in 1954.
The best description of this North-South hypocrisy was given by Davis Lee (of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper), a black publisher from Newark, NJ. He wrote an editorial that had some 500,000 black readers and decided to visit the South and investigate the segregation issue for himself. This is what he wrote:
“I am certainly in a better position to voice an opinion than the Negro leader who occupies a suite in downtown New York and bases his opinions on the South from the distorted stories he reads in the Negro press and in the Daily Worker…The racial lines in the South are so clearly drawn and defined there can be no confusion. When I am in Virginia or South Carolina I don’t wonder if I will be served if I walk into a white restaurant. I know the score. However, I have walked into several right here in New Jersey where we have a civil-rights law, and have been refused service…All of the Negro business in New Jersey will not amount to as much as our race has in one city in Georgia [Atlanta]. This is also true in South Carolina and Virginia…New Jersey employs one Negro in the motor vehicle department. All of the states above mentioned employ plenty. No matter what a Negro wants to do, he can do it in the South. In Spartanburg, S.C., Ernest Collins, a young Negro, operates a large funeral home, a taxicab business, a filling station, grocery store, has several busses, runs a large farm and a night club. Mr. Collins couldn’t do all that in New Jersey or New York. The only bus line operated by Negroes is in the South. The Safe Bus Co. in Winston-salem, N.C., owns and operates over a hundred. If a Negro in New Jersey or New York had the money and attempted to obtain a franchise to operate a line he would not only be turned down, but he would be lucky if he didn’t get a bullet in the back…The entire race program in America is wrong. We expend all our energies, and spend millions of dollars trying to convince white people that we are as good as they are that we are an equal. Joe Louis is not looked down upon as a Negro but as the greatest fighter of all time, loved and admired by whites in South Carolina as much as by those in Michigan. He convinced the world, not by propaganda and agitation, but by demonstration.”
In addition to Lee’s account, there were also various instances throughout the South that show segregation was not as limiting as modern portrayals depict. For example, Strom was proud that he had helped save Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, which was one of the two black medical colleges in the country. He noted that Southern Governors tried to save it because “Without it very few Negroes could get in the non-segregated medical schools in the North and East to get a medical education.” Strom also said saving it was necessary because “those claiming the desire to do so much for the Negro race apparently would not save it.”
Why do so many look back at this time and condemn Thurmond when prominent black leaders in his lifetime, like Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington, both promoted self-help over integration? These men were not going around the black community, pandering for support by shaming white Southerners for segregation. They knew that there were bigger problems that needed to be addressed.
Davis Lee, the publisher from New Jersey mentioned previously, knew the same thing, which was why he stated “Our fight for recognition, justice, Civil Rights, and equality, should be carried on within the race. Let us demonstrate to the world by our living standards, our conduct, our ability and intelligence that we are the equal of any man, and when we shall have done this the entire world, including the South, will accept us on our terms. Our present program of threats and agitation makes enemies out of our friends.”
Strom Thurmond supported segregation, but he never made any statements against racial equality. In fact, it could be argued that his opposition to the elimination of segregation had more to do with centralization. Part of the Democratic platform of 1948 was not only to eliminate segregation, but to create a new federal police that would basically spy on businesses to ensure conformity. Many viewed this as a kind of thought police, that would be used to break down basic freedoms of association. This is why the States’ Rights Democratic Party had a plank that stated “We oppose the usurpation of legislative functions by the executive and judicial departments. We unreservedly condemn the effort to establish in the United States a police nation that would destroy the last vestige of liberty enjoyed by a citizen” and “We oppose the totalitarian, centralized bureaucratic government and the police nation called for by the platforms adopted by the Democratic and Republican Conventions.”
THE LEGACY OF STROM AND THE DIXIECRATS
In 2002, after Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday, former Senator Trent Lott came under fire after saying the following about South Carolina history: “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.” After these comments, Lott’s career was ruined, forcing him to resign as most media outlets cited his support for the “segregation candidate” from 1948. Interestingly, another man from Massachusetts named Gregory D. Shorey said the same thing in a 1963 speech. Shorey moved to Greenville, South Carolina in 1950 to start a major company and described Strom as “one of the greatest statesmen of our time.” He also stated “Many of us had prayerfully hoped he might have made it in 1948. If this happy event had occurred this country would be measurably better off today, and we would have safeguarded many of the freedoms and individual liberties being taken from us by executive order today.” The point is not that Lott or Shorey were right, but that looking only at segregation as the key issue in that election is a mistake.
The States’ Rights Democratic party only went on to win four states that year: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. While they may not have had immense success, the national attention gained by Strom helped launch him into a career in the Senate. Over the years, many people have looked at the Dixiecrat movement and come to the conclusion that somehow Thurmond’s warnings about Communism were like the new “dog whistle” for racists. The truth is that his comparison of the United States’ growing powers to that of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, and his defense of States’ Rights, was a bold stand that make him more of a 20th century Anti-Federalist than a demagogue.
Truman also went on to violate the Constitution in several ways that have had long-lasting implications. In 1950, after North Korea invaded the South, President Truman intervened with American troops in a United Nations “police action.” There was never any congressional declaration of war or consultation with Congress and sources show that over 36,000 American soldiers died in the Korean War. The involvement has not ended either, and we still have thousands of soldiers there. Truman also tried to seize and operate many American steel mills to aid in war-time production in the name of “emergency powers.” According to Article I, section 8 of the Constitution, it is the duty of Congress to declare war, and raise and support armies. It also says “no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years.” The flagrant abuse of power by Truman gave subsequent executives the precedent to engage in military operations in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Uganda, and Syria. Not even Donald Trump is innocent, as he just vetoed a resolution that would have ended US involvement in Yemen.
Strom was not a typical politician though, and was extremely critical of how the Korean War was handled. He pointed out that the Secretary of State at that time, Dean Acheson, gave a major speech in 1950 where he did not mention Korea at all as one of our interests. Strom also supported prohibiting trade with China until the Communists released every prisoner of the United Nations and a peace treaty was signed. There’s also evidence to suggest that, if Strom had been elected in 1948, MacArthur may not have been fired for insubordination during the thick of the Korean War. Thurmond did not agree with military muzzling or appeasement, and many years later, in 1962, he was the only senator to call for an unequivocal invasion of Cuba after Soviets parked missiles there.
The election of 1948 also marked a key turning point in US history, a point where the UN Charter superseded the Constitution. Not even two years after the election, Harry Truman authored a document titled “Our Foreign Policy.” Dept of state publication 3972 General foreign policy series 26, September 1950. Division of Publications, office of public affairs.
In this document, Harry Truman repeatedly referred to the United States being part of an “International community.” He explained that this means “organizing members to deal collectively with their problems, and to defend themselves collectively against anyone who may threaten the peace and tranquility of the community.” He also indicated that such a community “may, in time, lead to the international control of all armament, which is essential. It may eventually lead to a form of world government, which is a possibility that excites the imagination of some adventurous people.” Finally, Truman sprinkled the word “democracy” multiple times throughout the document and indicated that “we want the kind of international community in which each nation is free to manage its own affairs, subject, of course, to its pledges and responsibilities under the United Nations Charter.”
America has become THE police force for the United Nations. Most recently, we have been increasingly aggressive abroad, using means such as torture, drone strikes, and indefinite detention in places like Guantanamo Bay to fight the tactic of terrorism. How do you fight a war against a tactic, then use such extreme measures to maintain it?
Strom certainly was not anti-war but he was critical of how Korea and Vietnam were handled, and was on the record in 1975 advising Gerald Ford that we could still help South Vietnam be independent and save our reputation in Asia. Strom believed an adequate defense of our coasts was not enough to keep us safe in the post WWII world. Just as many antebellum Southerners saw their world as one of the last true vestiges of Western Civilization, Strom viewed the United States as the last bulwark against Communism, and was against military intervention unless it was a necessity or unless we could fully commit to victory.
Our nation is clearly overextended while, here at home, the Patriot Act has compromised the privacy of Americans all over in the name of protection from terrorism. When Edward Snowden revealed just how massive government surveillance was in 2014, he detailed (among other things) that the NSA has at least 80 listening stations around the globe…It could be argued that we have become the exact type of police nation that Strom Thurmond predicted in his 1948 platform, but on a global scale.
The issue of race also needs to be addressed because it is the primary issue most people associate the Dixiecrats with. Can we look around at America today and say that desegregation, as it occurred, provided any healing? There is more hate and vitriol in the air than there has been for decades and our society is fracturing daily along the lines of race, heritage, history, gender, gender identity, and politics. You can not even go out and have a simple discussion about your day anymore without someone becoming “triggered” or exhibiting “microaggression.”
The public school system has also become more segregated than it was in the mid 20th century. In 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office investigators completed a study finding that from 2000-2014, the percentage of public high schools in poverty and the percentage of schools that are mostly black or hispanic more than doubled. The percentage of all schools with so-called race or socioeconomic isolation grew from 9%-15%. An “isolated school” is one at which 75% or more of students are of the same race or class. Investigators found that these schools offered fewer classes and had higher rates of discipline issues. The report also detailed that hispanic students are “triple segregated” by race, economics, and language. All of this is interesting when one considers that Strom stood for the “integrity of the races,” and modern day universities like UCLA have labeled statements like “there’s only one race, the human race” as microaggressive and racist.
Considering the deep divisions in America today, is it really fair to look back and think of Strom Thurmond only as a “segregationist” from 1948? If federal government bureaucracies are currently saying our system is more segregated than ever today, why do Strom and his ilk get all the blame? The answer is that racial division is a deeply entrenched feeling in America that people are constantly being divided over for political gain. Strom’s views may be unacceptable today, but there are good things to take away from his life and career.
Perhaps the best way to interpret Strom and the Dixiecrats for their real principles would be through examining the many prominent supporters they had. Murray Rothbard, the founder of modern libertarianism, is a prime example. Rothbard was a Jewish New Yorker and described himself as a “staunch supporter of the Thurmond movement” and said that, as an economist, he enthusiastically supported the Dixiecrat proposals on national debt and taxes. He also said that their platform was one of the best in American history and one of the finest political statements in America since Calhoun’s exposition.
Rothbard actually lamented that we were actually living under a one-party Socialist system, and that “National Socialism has always meant poverty, tyranny, and war.” His biggest critique of the Dixiecrats was that it was focused, in his opinion, on purely Southern interests. Even though Rothbard referred to the “Civil Rights” program as the “Civil Tyranny” program, he asked “…what about the myriad invasions of States’ Rights in other fields by the power-hungry Washington bureaucracy?” Rothbard believed the States’ Rights movement needed to establish itself nationally, to defend against socialist programs that he claimed would go through and “destroy this land of liberty.”
Today, America is being ruled politically by several that openly flirt with the ideas of Socialism. We have leftist candidates touting “Green New Deals” and claiming that Socialism can prevent climate change from destroying the earth in the next twelve years.
Basic core principles that are at the center of American thought today, like decentralization, free markets, and low taxes, were supported by Thurmond and Rothbard only to taken and remolded into movements like the Tea Party and Convention of the States. Convention of States says things all the time that Strom was saying over seventy years ago and has even made expensive videos with details about “How the States Can Save America.”
There were also creative geniuses that saw good things in Strom and the Dixiecrats. Robert Frost is one such verifiable example, having signed of one his books for Strom with the inscription: “To Jean and Strom Thurmond, with wonder and admiration from a Vermont States Righter.” Frost was born in 1874 as Robert Lee Frost. His father, William, was from Massachusetts but sympathized with the South. He attempted to join the Confederacy, was captured in Philadelphia, then fled to San Francisco where he became a Copperhead journalist. Many people have no idea that Robert Frost spent much of his adult life working as a farmer and writing agrarian poetry.
Another prime example would be James Brown, who is often described as the godfather of soul music, and said the following about Strom in a 1999 interview with Rolling Stone: “Sen. Thurmond has been able to stay afloat all these years, and he’s great for our country…When the young whippersnappers get out of line, whether Democrat or Republican, an old man can walk up and say, ‘Wait a minute, son, it goes this way.’ And that’s great for our country. He’s like a grandfather to me.” Brown even sang “Happy Birthday” at Strom’s 90th birthday party in Washington D.C., and Strom Thurmond’s son served as Brown’s attorney. If such a powerful symbol of black pride could accept Strom Thurmond, why is it not okay for Americans today to acknowledge some of the good things he did?
To fully understand Strom Thurmond on race requires a deep examination of his relationship with his biracial daughter, Essie May Washington-Williams. She was his first child, as Strom did not actually marry until he turned 44, and he courted Essie’s mother (who worked as a maid in the family home) when he was fresh out of Clemson. According to her mother, she met Strom in 1925 when he was teaching agriculture classes and coaching football at Edgefield high School. She had nice things to say about the Thurmond family and said that Strom “knew everything about fruits and vegetables” and that she and Strom would “go out to the orchards and pick peaches, and he’d know exactly when they were ripe and which ones would be the sweetest.” She also said that at that time Strom was “known for having an eye for the ladies, and he was handsome…He was always running in the road, half naked, at the crack of dawn, because that was a part of his health routine” and she could not help but notice.
There was clearly a connection, and when Essie met her father for the first time, she noted that her mother and he were “in love, clearly in love.” Essie noted that her father had a bone-crushing handshake, loved South Carolina history, and was obsessed with health. After their first meeting, she dreamed of getting letters from him and grew to become interested in that side of her family.
Over the years, they met in secret many times, where he almost always provided large sums of money to support her. When Strom returned home from WWII, he arranged a meeting with Essie (who was living in Harlem at the time) that left her with the impression that “one of the reasons he joined the army when he could have easily gotten out at his age was to be able to come north and see my mother.” Around this time, Strom invited Essie May to move to Orangeburg and attend the State University, where he paid for her education. At the same Thurmond was running for governor of the state and won, which allowed Essie May to relish in the secret fact that she was a governor’s daughter.
Essie had conflicting emotions when Strom ran for president in 1948. She stated that “The image of the state as ‘progressive’ was sacrificed on the altar of my father’s political ambitions.” After the election had passed, the two had a meeting where she made it clear the issue of segregation made her uncomfortable. She stated that black people in South Carolina could not even go to Edisto Gardens, which was located near Orangeburg and is still famed for its roses, azaleas, and cypress trees that are hundreds of years old.
Strom explained his thoughts on this by saying “Essie May, Edisto is private property. The owners can do what they want. Private property is the essence of the American democracy. I know you’re an A student in history. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. Would you want the government telling you what to do with your property?” He then went on an assault against Truman, and how he believed Truman’s Civil Rights program was a Stalinesque tactic to tell people how to run their businesses, to make sure black people were put in jobs whether qualified or not, and then send spies everywhere to ensure conformity.
Strom firmly believed he was doing the right thing and insisted that Essie “Stand up for what matters, not hot dogs at Woolworth’s.” To end this intense conversation, Strom stated the following about his 1948 run:
“I never expected to win. I never expected to run. It was quite an experience, quite an honor. I was trying to make a point for the South, that the South has to be respected, that there can’t be another Reconstruction, that the federal will can’t be imposed. I wasn’t against Negroes. I was against Washington. Maybe I spoke too strongly, maybe I got too passionate. If I did, then I’m sorry. Washington was simply using the Negro issue as a wedge. I guarantee I care more about the Negro than Harry Truman. Just look at my record. Study John C. Calhoun, Essie May. Our greatest South Carolinian. You’ll understand exactly what this campaign was about.”
Perhaps this quote shows that Strom believed his movement in 1948 was not so much about race as it was standing up for the South, and trying to show that it had just as much potential as any other part of the country at that time.
Eventually, Essie May found the courage to tell her father that many black people did not like him, which truly did have an effect on him, according to her. Essie stated that what many people saw as racism, he saw as paternalism and that in his own way, he was standing up for the South and for people of both races. Over halfway through his career, she noted that maybe he was looking in the mirror and saw George Wallace, and she stated that: “Everything was relative with my father. Like his diet, like the Cuban missiles, like the Kennedy underworld connections, history would prove that Strom Thurmond wasn’t as crazy or fanatical as he might have sounded at the time.”
Essie May went on to be a teacher and maintained contact with Strom until his death. Strom was there for her when she lost her husband in 1964, he eventually met his grandchildren through Essie, and continued providing funds for the family – never insisting that Essie needed to keep quiet about the relationship. After Strom’s death, the family ties were leaked and Essie wrote a book about her life that was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. Like a true teacher, she maintained her interest in history and even applied to join the United Daughters of the Confederacy but died before being accepted.
It’s a sad story, but a powerful lesson. If someone like Essie, who Strom probably hurt the most, could find it in her heart to accept Strom Thurmond then the least Americans could do is try and understand his story. But instead, the popular historians have made him a permanent scapegoat for America’s race issues. Take Joseph Crespino, who recently wrote in “Strom Thurmond’s America” that the Dixiecrat presidential run was not well received because “It was an imperfect rhetoric in 1948, and much was lost in trying to translate white supremacist rage into abstract conservative principle.” This is but one example of the type of snarky personal attacks included in “academic” works on Strom.
Crespino is right in that Strom was a flawed human being. But having flaws is a part of the human experience, and there is good and bad to take from everything. For example, take Strom Thurmond’s 1957 filibuster that lasted over twenty-four hours. This man stood up for an entire day, first reading election statutes in alphabetical order and then reading the founding documents. He got through the filibuster snacking on cold steak and pumpernickel bread, drinking orange juice, popping malted milk tablets, and sucking on throat lozenges. The entire speech filled ninety-six pages and had an estimated printing cost of $7,776. It was an immense waste of time and money that he likely would later regret, but it showed people that Strom Thurmond was a man willing to stand up for what he believed in, even if it was wrong or unpopular. Strom did do a lot to arguably make up for his stubborn early views. Isaac Williams, head of the South Carolina NAACP later wrote of Strom: “We don’t care what the senator did in the ‘40s and ‘50s but how he is representing us in 1978…try to punish a politician for the sins of the past, what does it profit him to improve?” Even Joe Biden, who is currently seeking the Democrat nomination for 2020, recounted entering the Senate ready to challenge old-timers like Strom, only to discover he was nothing like the popular perception.
So what can we take away from these lessons? Maybe the point is that Southerners should stop letting cultural imperialists and modern carpetbaggers dictate how they can think and feel about their own history. A huge reason Strom said fiery things he spent his whole career repairing was that he was tired of the South being treated like a doormat. Maybe the South needs to accept the fact that it is different and stop worrying about uneducated people crying “racism” everyday, all the time. Or perhaps, maybe Strom really was just a bad person and the only reason we should remember him is because, it could happen again.
But whether you love Strom Thurmond or hate him, nobody can deny he had powerful energy and an unmatched devotion to his state. If we could take some of his stubbornness and longevity, then apply it to our modern day problems in an uplifting way, the Southern tradition could make a huge impact on the world.