Primer on White Supremacy

Human Rights

The blank-faced reaction to revelations that arch segregationist Strom Thurmond fathered a daughter with his family's 16-year old African American maid marks the third time in recent months that progressives have been stymied by the yawning hypocrisy on the Right on matters of race, justice, and basic integrity. Strom Thurmond now joins Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett in providing perfect examples of the breathtaking contradictions within the Right wing agenda that have been inadequately challenged by the progressive community.

Perhaps many potential critics are left speechless in the face of this outrage in part because Essie Mae Washington-Williams herself seems so forgiving of her father. Many have taken this to mean that Strom Thurmond wasn't as committed to the cause of segregation as he might have appeared. Yet the belief that segregationists should be viewed sympathetically simply because they sustained family ties with Blacks obscures the true meaning of white supremacy. Neither slavery nor formal segregation was ever grounded in the principled separation of the races or on unyielding racial hatred. Segregation and the rhetoric that supported it were simply a means toward the larger enterprise of insulating and brutally protecting the supremacy of white male power in dictating the terms of political, economic, social and, of course, sexual intercourse. Once this logic is comprehended, nothing about Strom Thurmond's behavior in impregnating Carrie Butler, nor his subsequent relationship to Essie Mae Washington-Williams, seems out of the ordinary.

Washington-Williams' decision not to derail Thurmond when he was most vulnerable was, of course, hers to make. Yet judgment about the historical consequences of that decision remains squarely within the realm of public debate. To comprehend the full implication of that personal decision, it is important to recognize that Strom Thurmond was far more than a fellow traveler on the road to massive resistance to racial equality. Thurmond was a chief architect, principle leader, and key symbol of Southern intransigence in the service of white supremacy.

Despite a stint as a progressive politician, Thurmond's early political influences made it no surprise that he developed into the political hero of the most virulently racist political forces in the South. Thurmond's earliest political role model was "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, a virulently racist leader of the bloody redshirt campaign that punished Blacks and their supporters and obliterated their political power in South Carolina. Scores of Blacks were viciously killed in the campaign. Tillman once bragged about the murder of a Black state senator while he knelt in prayer. Thurmond's father was Tillman's political operative in Edgefield County, a place with a particularly violent reputation. Indeed, Thurmond's father killed a drunken political opponent in the town square in broad daylight. In this political culture, Thurmond was exposed to, and later sought to emulate, those politicians who could stir up a frenzied crowd, often through the racial demonization of their Black neighbors. The conflict among white politicians then was not over "whether" to promote white supremacy, but rather, as one commentator has put it, "who can yell nigger the loudest."

Having drafted the Southern Manifesto declaring unyielding opposition to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Thurmond galvanized, courted and threatened Southern politicians to stand behind the declaration. In that manifesto are the key components of the defense of segregation that continue to frame resistance to equality agendas to this day. Indeed it was Thurmond's leadership, first in becoming the presidential candidate for the segregationist Dixiecrats, and then his later delivery of this influential cohort to the Republican Party, that polarized the parties on civil rights issues and set the stage for a massive political realignment that still centers race as its major fault line. If Washington-Williams' recollection serves her, Thurmond's defense was that he merely inherited a way of life that as a politician he was expected to defend. But this benign epitaph ignores the fact that Strom Thurmond raised the heat on the racial cauldron well beyond its boiling point.

As Washington-Williams' mildly suggested to her father, Thurmond could have led America down a remarkably different path, one that might have found peace in squarely confronting the democratic illegitimacy of white supremacy. He might have used his considerable political gifts to demonstrate to the masses an acceptance of the inherent equality of American citizens based not on outside coercion but on internalized principles. One can only imagine what the nation might have been spared had Thurmond chosen to get ahead of the game by sowing racial justice in the fertile soil of the South's progressive tradition rather than becoming a dangerously divisive reactionary in the face of modest federal steps to alleviate the suffering of African Americans. Had Thurmond so much as attempted to exercise this courage, he would truly deserve the iconic status he now enjoys. That Thurmond chose not do so, even in the face of a familial relationship with a woman who was susceptible to the torrent of hate that these politics unleashed, discredits all efforts to portray him as a sympathetic character in America's racial drama.

Kimberle Williams Crenshaw is Professor of Law at Columbia University and UCLA and is the Co-Founder and and Co-Director of the African American Policy Forum.

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