September 1, 2012 | Washington Monthly
Like many artists and most bigots, Strom Thurmond was highly productive early in life. By the age of fifty-five, the humorless South Carolina reactionary had run for president as a Dixiecrat, secured election to the U.S. Senate, penned the neo-confederate “Southern Manifesto” denouncing Brown v. Board of Education, and performed the longest one-man filibuster in the Senate’s history: a ghastly King Lear with pitchfork and noose, in which Thurmond denounced the 1957 Civil Rights Act as the death of liberty. (It ended when he grew hoarse and sat down.) When Lyndon Johnson pushed the much toothier Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Congress, he again did it over Thurmond’s filibuster. The following year, Thurmond fought the Voting Rights Act. His political idols were John C. Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, and Spiro Agnew. In his most famous speech, Thurmond pledged in 1948 that there were not enough troops in the Army to force “the southern people” to “admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” But apparently they were allowed into “our” beds: in 1925 the twenty-two-year-old Thurmond sired a child with a sixteen-year-old African American family maid. His illegitimate daughter remained anonymous until her father’s death in 2003.
Today Strom Thurmond’s name brings to mind two sentiments: revulsion and disgrace. Here was a racist hypocrite who denounced the intermixing of black and white while secretly paying hush money to his own biracial daughter. He never apologized for his years as a segregationist, and even had the nerve later in life to deny that they ever occurred. Thurmond’s association was toxic enough to cost Trent Lott his position as Senate majority leader in 2002, when Lott suggested during an unguarded moment that the United States would have been a better place had Thurmond been elected president in 1948.
Yet as Joseph Crespino demonstrates in his outstanding biography, Strom Thurmond’s America, it is precisely Thurmond’s loathsomeness on racial issues that obscures his larger role in American politics. Like some malevolent Forrest Gump, Thurmond was there at all the major choke points of modern conservative history: the 1948 breakaway from the Democrats of the short-lived States’ Rights Democratic (or Dixiecrat) Party, Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon’s southern strategy in 1968, and Ronald Reagan’s ascendance in 1980. A Democrat until 1964, Thurmond was the fulcrum on which the parties traded places on race issues. His trademark use of nasty populism dressed up in constitutional principle has echoes today on the far right — the territory of Rush Limbaugh and the shrillest of the Tea Partiers. Yet he also helped cement the association between conservatives on the one hand and big business, the Christian right, and anticommunism on the other.
Crespino, a history professor at Emory University, presents the right blend of narrative, scholarly analysis, and restrained outrage, reminding readers that Thurmond cared about far more than segregation. In 1957 the liberal group Americans for Democratic Action gave him the lowest score of any Democrat in the Senate: a zero. As Crespino writes, “Thurmond was the first southerner in the postwar period to bring together on a regional scale the visceral politics of white supremacy with southern business and industrial opposition to the New Deal.” Thurmond sat on the board of trustees of Bob Jones University, loathed communists, and never met a weapons program he didn’t like. As South Carolina’s governor from 1947 to 1951, he developed a talent for attracting companies to his state, trading his early pro-labor bona fides for reflexive hostility to unions. In 1962, the Kennedy administration incensed him by “muzzling” military leaders who had forced their troops to read material from the John Birch Society and other far-right groups. During a series of Senate hearings, Thurmond snarled invective in a high-pitched voice that merged the grievance of Dixie with the paranoia of Joseph McCarthy.
Two figures prompted Thurmond’s switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party, a move that reflected a fundamental realignment of American politics. The first was Harry Truman, and the second was Barry Goldwater. Thurmond and other southern Democrats broke with Truman in 1948 after the president issued executive orders desegregating the armed services and the federal workforce. A career grandstander, Thurmond seized the opportunity to grab the limelight by leading an informal association of southern Democratic governors and then becoming their impromptu presidential candidate in 1948. He won four southern states in the electoral college and made a national name for himself. Although he returned to the Democrats and remained with the party for sixteen years, its leaders never trusted him again.
After winning election to the Senate in 1956, Thurmond became one of the South’s most aggressive opponents of court-ordered desegregation. Invoking various Confederate rallying points, he declared “total and unremitting war on the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional usurpations and unlawful arrogations of power,” denouncing the Court’s “false and vicious ideology.” An outrageous demagogue, Thurmond called civil rights legislation “involuntary servitude” for whites, and subjected Thurgood Marshall to the equivalent of a literacy test during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings by quizzing him on arcane subjects as a means of embarrassment. Yet Thurmond coyly protested his innocence when racial violence ensued, as it did in his home state when a mob of white residents in Lamar attacked school buses carrying black children. As the Washington Post observed, Thurmond and his fellow travelers “have been playing with matches in public for some time now, and yet they want us to know immediately and for the record that if there is one thing they deplore it’s fire.”
Barry Goldwater lured Strom Thurmond to the Republican Party like a rancher sweet-talking a mustang. Aware that the party needed southern white voters in order to take back the presidency in 1964, Goldwater told South Carolina audiences that he wished there were more Thurmonds in Washington — this while Thurmond was still nominally a Democrat. Thurmond made the break in September 1964, dramatically declaring himself a “Goldwater Republican” and tirelessly campaigning for the Arizona senator. Goldwater and Thurmond found common cause in right-wing anticommunism — Goldwater too participated in the Senate muzzling hearings — and if their opposition to desegregation stemmed from different places (racism for Thurmond; libertarianism for Goldwater), the result was the same. Thurmond’s entrance into the party horrified moderate northern Republicans like George Romney and Nelson Rockefeller, and pushed the party’s platform to the right. At the time, Goldwater was unapologetic: he said he was merely “hunting where the ducks are.” Yet later he had second thoughts. He awkwardly declined to write a foreword for Thurmond’s 1968 book, The Faith We Have Not Kept, citing Thurmond’s enduring hostility to the Brown decision.
The party switch reflected the shifting allegiances of southern whites, but also revealed Thurmond’s expedient side. Facing the prospect of a Democratic primary challenge in 1966, Thurmond realized that years of infidelity to his party might finally cost him his Senate seat. And if he stayed Democratic and won, party leaders might punish him for supporting Goldwater by stripping him of his committee assignments. Despite his carefully cultivated image as the last southern man, all backbone and principle, Thurmond throughout his career sold out in spectacular moments of cravenness. His calculated decision to back Nixon over George Wallace in 1968 was another of those moments. Thurmond archly defended the move based on fidelity to his party. In truth, he figured Wallace for an also-ran from the beginning, and recognized that an alliance with Nixon meant real proximity to power. The existence and extent of an agreement or “understanding” between Thurmond and Nixon as the price of the former’s support is one of the enduring political narratives of the 1968 election.
Crespino is especially astute in discussing the way Thurmond’s overt racism fused with Nixon’s politics of white resentment to solidify the modern Republican coalition. Conservatives began dealing in dog whistles rather than water cannons. Crespino writes,
There were still millions of Americans who … felt queasy over hearing the issue of law and order so baldly put in Strom Thurmond’s southern accent. The old Dixiecrat seemed to be ventriloquizing ancient southern fear mongering about lawless black men. Yet the turmoil in American politics and in cities across the country over the past several years cast Thurmond in a strange new light. Amid such frustrations, a significant number of white Americans wound up empathizing with fears and resentments that Thurmond had been channeling for more than two decades.
In the 1970s and ’80s Thurmond nimbly repositioned himself yet again, uttering fewer racist statements and even voting to create the federal Martin Luther King holiday. “The humorless segregationist firebrand was slowly giving way to the quirky, age-defying senator in jogging shorts,” Crespino writes. Yet in the book’s most fascinating pages, Crespino reveals this harmless image to be yet another cynical pose. Aware of the changing times, Thurmond took steps to insulate himself against a black electorate that was not inclined to forget his comments about “the nigger race.” He grandly hired a black staff member and pushed the nomination of a black judge for the U.S. district court in South Carolina. He ostentatiously accompanied his daughter to her first day at an integrated public school — only to move her to a private school in Virginia once he was safely reelected in 1978. Crespino cites staff memos from Thurmond’s political advisers showing these moves to be nothing more than strategic efforts to suppress turnout among black voters. He was a Dixiecrat to the end.
Strom Thurmond’s America is a timely reminder of how easily bigotry can exploit and pervert electoral politics. Today’s intolerance — anti-Muslim invective, birther conspiracies, xenophobia — is not the same as Thurmond’s: overt racism is not nearly as prevalent. Some of the credit for this progress belongs to the many Republicans who have honorably worked to overcome their party’s legacy. Yet it is hard to deny that the voices of intolerance have gotten louder during the tenure of our first black president. Prominent Republicans openly use racial dog whistles and aggressively push policies like voter ID laws that disproportionately impede poor African Americans from voting. Thurmond’s taint, it would seem, is as thick as blood. It will take generations to wear off.