Strom Thurmond's America

Strom Thurmond, the Senate's champion of segregation, endured long after the Dixiecrats were history.

Strom Thurmond's America By Joseph Crespino Farrar, Straus and Giroux 416 pp.

One of the signal moments of Strom Thurmond's lengthy political career was his record-breaking one-man filibuster opposing the 1957 Civil Rights Act. During his speech – which stretched for 24 hours and 18 minutes – the South Carolina senator nibbled on cold steak, slipping away during a procedural interruption for just one brief bathroom break. Reading Joseph Crespino's fine new biography, Strom Thurmond's America, one is struck by the thought that Thurmond's life as a whole was marked by endurance. After being elected governor of South Carolina, the strident segregationist ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat – representing the southern wing of the Democratic Party – before settling in to a nearly half-century stretch in the Senate that ended in 2003, when he was 100. Another sign of his knack for survival: the fact that he had fathered a black child, which surely would have destroyed his political prospects, remained hidden until after his death.

That revelation has earned Thurmond a reputation as "one of the great American hypocrites," Crespino writes, because he has long been associated with unreconstructed racism. While Thurmond normally used the coded language of "states' rights" and "law and order" when discussing racial issues, he at times devolved into outright racist demagoguery. In the run-up to his 1948 presidential campaign, for instance, Thurmond gave a speech in which he vowed, "There's 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."

Crespino, a professor at Emory University, details the explicit racism of Thurmond's early career, which, as the world changed around him, gave way to pragmatic efforts to avoid offending South Carolina's sizable black population. (North Carolina's Jesse Helms eventually replaced Thurmond as the Senate's resident firebrand: while Helms led a 1983 filibuster against honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday, Thurmond quietly voted in favor of the measure.) But Crespino is more interested in looking at Thurmond with a wider lens, arguing astutely that he wasn't simply a durable emblem of the racist Old Right but also a canny politician who helped facilitate the ascendance of post-World War II Sunbelt conservatism, which saw the parties realign as the GOP courted white voters in southern and southwestern states. (Thurmond finally, and dramatically, left the Democratic party in 1964 in order to declare himself a "Goldwater Republican.")

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.

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.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a PhD in American Studies.

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