Strom Won't Be Missed
Well it finally happened. My home state of South Carolina's most famous (or is that infamous) political figure died at the age of 100.
James Strom Thurmond was born December 5, 1902, when Theodore Roosevelt was president, and over a year before the Wright Brothers historic flight at Kitty Hawk. His political career began when he became superintendent of education in Edgefield County, South Carolina in 1928, and ended after he had served in the Senate for nearly fifty years.
As might be imagined, he is being remembered as a hero in his home state. The local media would have you believe that the earth itself spun only because he willed it to. We have a tendency, as a people, to not speak badly of those who have passed away, but it's important to remember people for who they actually were, not some rose-colored vision of who they were, or pretended to be.
It's with that in mind that I want to paint a picture of what Strom Thurmond really stood for. He was a racist. No amount of sugarcoating or excuse-making can change that. In fact, he was one of the most important figures in the history of the Segregated South.
I've had my fill of people telling me that he was a product of his times and the views he held were almost universally held in the South back then. I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough for me. People can't be excused for a view based solely on the fact that it was a widely held belief.
If segregation is wrong now it was wrong then, and anybody who supported it was wrong. It's really that simple. Besides, we're not talking about just an average Southern citizen; we're talking about a Southern leader.
Thurmond and his political peers were not followers; they were the policymakers. No one forced Thurmond to run a segregationist "Dixiecrat" campaign for president in 1948. No one forced him to give a speech in that same campaign in which he said: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement."
Those are not the words of a man caught up in a movement. That's the voice of a man stoking the fires of hate for political gain. After his failed presidential bid, he went on to become the only senator ever elected through a write-in vote in 1954. In 1957 he made history by filibustering a civil-rights bill for 24 hours and 18 minutes. No one forced racist politics on Strom. He championed them of his own free will.
His shift to the Republican Party in 1964 was a watershed moment in Southern politics. He was the first significant Southern Democrat to shift, and he opened the floodgates. His party shift marked the beginning of a complete Southern political shift. Now the South, which was almost exclusively under the control of the Democratic Party fifty years ago, is a Republican stronghold.
Strom's shift wasn't caused by a fundamental change in belief, but was prompted by the Democrats', under Lyndon Johnson, support for civil-rights legislation. The Southern party shift was not prompted by a change in views among the leaders, but was instead a statement of racism.
It's hard to deny that the Strom Thurmond of the 50's and 60's was a leader in the racist politics of the South at that time, and fostered a hatred that still plagues us to this day. Many people choose to forget that Strom Thurmond. I will not.
The Thurmond apologists will then tell me that he reached out to the African-American community after that. He realized the error of his ways and wanted to heal the wounds that he helped cause. After all, they say, he was one of the first Southern Senators to have a black staff member, and he supported a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.
I call bullshit on that. I find it awfully convenient that he had this sudden change of heart around the same time that segregation and civil-rights opposition became unacceptable positions to hold in American politics. Thurmond had been so outspoken in his opposition to civil rights in the past that he could not have survived politically if he hadn't made such a dramatic shift.
Thurmond didn't change, America did. We decided that segregationist views had no place in a rational political debate anymore. All one has to do is witness what happened to Trent Lott when he praised Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. He was abandoned by Democrats and Republicans and forced to resign his leadership position in the Senate. In my opinion, Thurmond's shift on racial issues was about pragmatic politics and not a true change of heart.
Then you have the disgraceful last few years of his last Senate term. A term in which Thurmond had to be helped on and off the Senate floor and was openly told by aides how to vote. This was a mockery of the American legislative process, and was embarrassing to the state of South Carolina. I was glad when his term ended, even though the man that replaced him, Lindsey Graham, was and is a conservative zealot. Graham is at least capable of following the business of the Senate without handlers.
Of course, Thurmond shouldn't get all the blame for the racist policies of the South in the past; there were many people who were more incendiary in their racist comments in those days. I am never more ashamed of my Southern roots then when I think about all the atrocities committed in the days of the civil-rights movement.
Actually, it's not that hard to find people, both old and young, who will privately express the same racial sentiments that became politically unpalatable in the South thirty years ago. Don't believe the "New South" hype; the hate from generations ago is still here, but now it's underground, like a secret that is shared among Southern whites, but one that no one else is supposed to know about.
We have learned to have duality in our views. There's the view that's OK for the yankees and the cameras, then there's the view at the supper table. In this place, where Confederate flags are more common than American flags, a feeling of quiet hatred permeates the humid Southern air. It's all part of the South's lasting legacy of racism, and we can only hope that we can end it over time. Strom Thurmond was a part of that hatred, and his passing is the passing of part of that legacy; for that, I'm grateful.
I expect that local television will continue to be saturated with glowing tributes to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond for some time to come, but I will remember what he truly stood for, and why there are so many tributes to him throughout the state. A man who stood for hate and division has died; may he and his ideals rest in peace.
Christopher George is a freelance writer living in South Carolina.