Ol' Strom and Me

The skeleton that rattled in the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond's closet with the revelation that he may have fathered a black child also rattled for me. If Essie Mae Washington-Williams is indeed his daughter, and she claims to have documents and has offered to take DNA tests to prove it, then my two granddaughters who are her great granddaughters are Strom Thurmond's great-great granddaughters.

That raises troubling concerns for me. The girls are 8 and 2 years old, and I don't want them exposed to the public rancor and bitterness that has raged between the black and white descendants of Thomas Jefferson. But they need to know the truth about their heritage. It's well known or strongly suspected that a slew of prominent, wealthy and politically connected Southern slave masters -- and that almost certainly included Jefferson -- kept black mistresses, fathered black children, and even supported them.

The sexual hijinks between these men regarded as pillars of Southern society and black women didn't end with slavery. Some of them voluntarily contributed to their children's upkeep. It appears that Thurmond dutifully gave financial support to Washington-Williams. But many others didn't. In the decades after the Civil War, black women made countless legal claims against these men for financial and child support for their racially mixed illegitimate children.

When the story broke nationally about Thurmond and his possible relationship to my granddaughters, my oldest granddaughter asked me about him. Segregation, states rights and conservatism, the things that Thurmond mightily championed, are alien concepts to her, and I told her simply that he was an important Southern Senator. But she deserves to know the full truth about her presumed great-great grandfather's political legacy. When she's old enough I'll tell her that Thurmond did more than any other Southern politician to resuscitate a moribund Republican Party in the South and transform it into a dominant conservative force in national politics. Thurmond's one-man crusade for states rights and against federal intrusion in the South's racial business stoked white fury against the national Democrats in the 1960s. In the eyes of many white Southerners, the Democratic Party became the hated symbol of integration and civil rights.

The big break came with Republican Barry Goldwater's presidential bid in 1964. Thurmond adroitly read the political tea leaves, stumped for Goldwater and urged Southern Democrats to do the same. In the process, he dropped the racially inflammatory rhetoric that had long been his and other Southern politicians' stock in trade. Instead, he and Goldwater railed against welfare, crime in the streets, permissiveness and big government. He branded the Democrats the party of "regulation," "control," "coercion," "intimidation" and "subservience."

This was racial code speak but it worked. It ignited the first big exodus of Southern whites from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. The stampede got even bigger in 1968. President Nixon, with Ol' Strom's endorsement and active support, crafted his "Southern Strategy," that is, woo white voters, while saying and doing as little as possible about civil rights. That strategy became the indispensable cornerstone of Republican politics in the South. In the years to come, Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and the elder Bush also made masterful use of Nixon's Southern Strategy to win elections and tighten the Republican grip on the South.

But President Bush also has greatly benefited from the Southern Strategy. In the 2000 presidential election, he bagged the electoral votes of all the states of the Old Confederacy. Without the granite-like backing of these states, Democratic presidential contender Al Gore would have easily won the White House, and the Florida vote debacle would have been a meaningless sideshow. Bush will benefit again in the 2004 election from Thurmond's radical remake of the Republican Party in the South. White males by whopping margins still favor Bush over any of the Democratic presidential challengers, and that includes North Carolina senator John Edwards.

Despite much talk that Thurmond did a racial mea culpa in the latter days of his political reign, he still remained a die-hard conservative. His voting record was pro-defense and anti-government social programs. In his final campaign for his eighth Senate term in 1996, he ranted against the "the 40-year wrongs of liberalism."

Thurmond helped ensure that the Republicans would be major players for decades to come in national politics. Bush and the Republicans owe Ol' Strom an eternal debt of gratitude. That's not the debt that my granddaughters owe their presumed great-great grandfather. However, when they're old enough to understand I'll talk candidly with them about the racially indelible political stamp that he put on the nation.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson (Ehutchi344@aol.com) is an author and political analyst. He is the author of "The Crisis in Black and Black" (Middle Passage Press).


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