The black comedian Dick Gregory said in 1971 that race relations in America were easy to understand: “In the North they don’t care how big I get, long as I don’t get too close. Down South, they don’t care how close I get, long as I don’t get too big.” Since his death, Strom Thurmond has been reduced to proof of this joke, if not a joke himself: the arch-segregationist with a black daughter who obviously didn’t mind if “they” got quite close indeed. He was a joke for many years before that, too — the doddering nonagenarian, the notorious flirt who fathered his last child at the age of 74, the southern throwback who patronized female congressional witnesses by saying things like “These are the prettiest witnesses we have had in a long time. I imagine you are all married.” In the world of politics, ancient history is anything that happened more than 25 years ago, and we have to look back much further than that to find a time when Strom Thurmond was not a punchline.
This is what Joseph Crespino has done, with considerable success. The four great landmarks of Thurmond’s career are laid out neatly — the 1948 presidential run, the 1957 filibuster, the 1964 party switch, and the 1968 Republican convention — and, by filling in neglected details and putting each moment in its proper context, Crespino transforms his subject into something much more than a caricature. He also answers the difficult question of how a man could get elected again and again, well into the Nineties, despite having been the most fervent supporter of a social system now universally considered to have been a national disgrace.
The answer to that question begins with the fact that Strom Thurmond was not the most fervent segregationist in America, despite appearances to the contrary. Consider his filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which looks like a singular display of intransigent racism. At 24 hours and 18 minutes it still holds the record for longest one-man filibuster in the history of the Senate; the text ran for 96 pages in the Congressional Record, at a printing cost of $7,776. When he claimed, around hour 23, to be “speaking for the future citizens of South Carolina,” a colleague piped up, “Well, brother, if you speak much longer, they will soon be here, too.” No other southern senator joined his effort, which has led most people to assume that his abhorrence for civil rights must have been fiercer and more visceral than that of any of his colleagues — an easy thing to believe about a man whose grandfather was present at Appomattox and who hailed from the same hometown in South Carolina as the congressman who beat abolitionist Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate in 1856.
Thurmond did not have any interest in correcting this false impression at the time, but today’s historian does. As Crespino shows, Thurmond’s filibuster had more to do with circumstances than with conviction. It wasn’t just that his office had been inundated with messages from constituents imploring him to take a stand or else face the electoral consequences. His 1948 presidential run on the “Dixiecrat” ticket had alienated Democratic power brokers, both in Washington and in South Carolina. (In his first election to the Senate, Thurmond was forced to run as a write-in candidate against his own party’s nominee, so low was his stock with the Columbia establishment.) He was ambitious for power, but he knew he could not expect favorable committee assignments or publicity boosts from a leadership still bitter over the 1.2 million votes he had taken from Harry Truman. He might have relied on personal charisma, as Huey Long had, but unfortunately he did not have any. Far from the back-slapping, joke-cracking stereotype of a southern pol, Thurmond was a humorless health nut who drank a glass of prune juice every morning and never produced a bon mot in his life.
Neither party nor personality was going to bring him political capital, so he had to earn some on his own by playing the maverick. He was certainly a racist, but he was hardly the most passionate racist in a Senate that also included James Eastland and John Stennis of Mississippi and Richard Russell of Georgia — whose reason for not filibustering the bill was, incidentally, to preserve segregation. Thurmond’s fellow southern hardliners had made a deal with moderate northern and western Democrats (John F. Kennedy among them) to water down the bill; according to an internal Southern Caucus memo, a filibuster would cause these moderates to “feel that the South has betrayed them after they acted in good faith,” which would drive them to embrace “every ‘civil rights’ scheme of the past 20 years.”
The second great question about Thurmond is why he switched parties. This is not an idle point of trivia. Today’s Democratic party would dearly like to paint the breakup of the “Solid South” as a straightforward migration of racists from one party to another, and the closer they can put Strom Thurmond to the center of that story, the better they can obscure figures such as George Wallace. It is indeed embarrassing for them that Wallace could sweep every county in their Florida presidential primary as late as 1972, by which point Strom Thurmond, as a Republican, had already become the first southerner in Congress to hire a black man onto his staff. Thurmond did cosponsor an anti-busing bill in 1975, but the author of that bill was a Democratic wunderkind from Delaware named Joe Biden. If desegregation had been Thurmond’s primary concern, a party switch would not have been required.
The truth is that the GOP appealed to Thurmond for many reasons having nothing to do with race. Of all the ideological mantles he wore in his decades of politics, “Sunbelt Conservatism” may have been the one that fit him the best: anti-Communist, pro-business, strict about constitutional interpretation, skeptical of unions, and even more skeptical of big government. It is noteworthy that, in his September 1964 party-switch announcement, Thurmond proclaimed himself not just a Republican, but a “Goldwater Republican.”
His economic conservatism was not just deeply felt — though certainly it was that; he had been anti-union since his political infancy — it was also popular back home. And with good reason. Crespino gives the numbers: By the 1970s, South Carolina “enjoyed the highest level of foreign investment per capita of any state in the nation. Manufacturing had grown at three times the national average over the past three decades.” In the broader South, “per capita income grew 14 percent faster than in any other region.” For the first time since the days of the carpetbaggers, more people were moving into the South than out of it. The South’s main advantage was that it refused to let free enterprise be strangled by regulation, taxation, or Big Labor. The Republican party was the natural home for anyone who wanted this advantage preserved.
After his party conversion, Thurmond embraced the cause of the “New Right” with gusto. His influence within the party might have peaked in 1968, when he was able to literally hand Richard Nixon a list of vice-presidential candidates from which to choose, but he continued to operate behind the scenes long after this high point of power-brokering. He was an early supporter of Young Americans for Freedom and a popular speaker on their lecture circuit. Conservative grandee Lee Edwards, as a young man, ghostwrote the only book published under Thurmond’s name, The Faith We Have Not Kept. Lee Atwater got his start as a Thurmond intern. The business plan that would one day become the Heritage Foundation was written by Fritz Rench in Thurmond’s Capitol Hill office.
It is not exactly pleasant to read about the many unexpected occasions when Strom Thurmond was central to the growth of the Right, because his early career is such a source of justified shame — as Trent Lott found out the hard way. Crespino points out two little-known facts about the remarks Lott made at Thurmond’s 100th-birthday party and his subsequent resignation as Senate minority leader. First, Lott was forced to speak extempore only because Bob Dole, who spoke before him, delivered all the anecdotes he had prepared. Second, Lott had made the same statement almost verbatim in 1980 — “You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today” — and no one raised an eyebrow, on the assumption he was talking about big government, not civil rights.
But the person who has most cause to speak ill of Thurmond — Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter he financially supported but never acknowledged — has also been the one most willing to forgive him. Chalk it up to family loyalty, Christian charity, or sheer classiness, there’s no doubt that she has been kinder to him in her public statements than he deserved. Thurmond was written off as out of date again and again in his Senate career. In a world where Essie Mae Washington-Williams is a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and a black man named Tim Scott defeated Thurmond’s son in a Republican congressional primary, this country may finally have earned the right to call Thurmond and his brand of politics well and truly obsolete.
– Helen Rittelmeyer is a former associate editor of National Review.