Strom Thurmond's America
Strom Thurmond, the Senate's champion of segregation, endured long after the Dixiecrats were history.
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The Republican "southern strategy" depended on race-baiting, of course, but also involved maximizing the region's economic potential. Developing the South's business climate was "an imperative for [Thurmond] of no less importance than the politics of Jim Crow," Crespino notes. "But in fact he never had to choose between the two." Even as his open racism came to seem a relic of a bygone age, Thurmond remained committed to a pro-industry and anti-labor agenda. "He'll accept blacks now, but you still don't see Strom shaking hands with union people," a white South Carolina union rep noted drily in 1978. Thurmond, a staunch anti-Communist, also enthusiastically supported every Pentagon project to come down the pike, helping ensure the Sunbelt's participation in the spoils of the Cold War's military-industrial alliance.Skip to next paragraph
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Thurmond's longevity, and his gentlemanly, old-school style of politics, turned him into a "nostalgic figure" late in his career; when Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court, Crespino notes that he acted more like the father of the bride than the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declaring, "We love you for your beauty, respect you for your intelligence, adore you for your charm." In his final years, increasingly confused and addled, the senator "gradually slipped from legend into parody." He died in June 2003, six months after leaving office; six months after that, an elderly retired African-American schoolteacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams held a press conference to announce that Thurmond was her father and had provided her financial support throughout her life.
Washington-Williams spoke of her father without bitterness. It's also notable that by the end of his career the senator had won the loyalty of a number of his black constituents. Regarding race, "Thurmond would never provide his aides or posterity with any accounting of what he had believed in the past, why he had acted as he did, and how his beliefs had changed," Crespino writes. "Nor would he ever apologize." The book's footnotes suggest that the author did not have access to Thurmond's children or others who might have offered insights about the senator's private evolution, if he indeed had one. Strom Thurmond's America is fascinating as political drama, but the personal dramas that may have influenced Thurmond's actions remain frustratingly out of reach.