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Strom Thurmond was born James Strom Thurmond on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina. He was one of six children born to John William Thurmond and Eleanor Gertrude Strom. Thurmond’s father was a lawyer, farmer, community leader, and former South Carolina state senator. Strom followed in his father’s footsteps by acquiring a self-taught law degree (under the tutelage of his father) and entering politics after his 1923 graduation from Clemson College (now Clemson University). In 1928 Thurmond was elected the superintendent of education for Edgefield County. In 1932 he was elected a state senator of Edgefield County. In 1938 he was sworn in as an elected state judge, but he voluntarily gave up his judgeship in 1942 to enlist in the army during World War II (1939-1945). Thurmond became governor of South Carolina in 1946 when he beat the incumbent governor, Ransome J. Williams, (and nine other candidates) in the South Carolina gubernatorial race.
Thurmond was an avid Democratic Party politician, but the 1948 presidential election became a benchmark year for what became his and southern Democratic politicians’ revolt from the national party. Democratic president Harry S. Truman’s 1948 reelection campaign advocated pro-civil rights legislation (abolition of the poll tax, support of an antilynching law, the creation of a permanent Federal Employment Practices Commission, and a ban on discrimination in commerce). Southern states reacted negatively to this platform by revolting from the national party to form their own, prosegregation and antiblack civil rights, wing of the party—the Dixiecrats, or States’ Rights Party. Thurmond was nominated the Dixiecrat presidential candidate, officially representing the party’s position that states had the right to retain segregation. Thurmond lost the election, but his staunchly southern prosegregation and antiblack civil rights positions launched him into the helm of southern political leadership.
Thurmond was elected a U.S. senator of South Carolina in 1954, and during his tenure he opposed the passage of several civil rights bills—the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 (in obstructing the bill’s passage he set the record for the longest Senate filibuster—twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes), the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, all of which were important in advancing blacks’ civil rights. His continued dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party’s stance on civil rights issues led him to sever his ties with the party in 1964 and become a Republican.
Despite Thurmond’s initial support for Lyndon B. Johnson (a southern Democrat from Texas) as the vice presidential candidate in 1964, Thurmond later openly opposed the national party’s liberal plank on civil rights. The summer before the 1964 presidential election, Thurmond decided not to attend the Democratic national convention because of his ideological differences on civil rights, which separated him from the national party’s politics. In a 1964 speech to a South Carolina audience, Thurmond denounced the Democratic Party platform and announced his realignment with the Republican Party and his support of Barry Goldwater’s (a Republican senator from Arizona) 1964 presidential candidacy. Thurmond found more ideological connections with the conservative Goldwater, who, although he was not a segregationist per se, had outlined in 1961 a “southern strategy” to invite southerners to support the Republican Party as the anticivil rights political party. Thurmond’s partisan realignment influenced the eventual realignment of most white southern Democrats to the Republican Party. His realignment with the Republican Party also laid the foundation for what would become a new and lifelong commitment to this political party.
During much of Thurmond’s political career, his politics were marred with antiblack interests. He was an avid supporter of “freedom of choice” school desegregation plans (despite their being declared unconstitutional by the 1968 Supreme Court case Green v. New Kent County), which were a part of the “massive resistance” that southern governments implemented to avoid desegregation. Often, freedom of choice desegregation plans retained former segregation practices—whites who opposed desegregation chose to attend white schools (in order to avoid contact with blacks) and blacks who more than likely supported desegregation continued to attend all-black schools (in order to avoid intimidation by whites in integrated schools).
The issue of freedom of choice plans was at the center of the 1970 South Carolina gubernatorial race, and the candidate who supported the plan (South Carolina con-gressmember Albert Watson) lost to the candidate who opposed it (South Carolina lieutenant governor John West). This political victory attested to the significance of the candidate’s more moderate views on race and his appeal among a majority of black voters. After witnessing this change in how elections could be won in South Carolina politics, Thurmond became more open to considering blacks’ political interests and to broadening his constituent service to South Carolina’s black electorate. He even hired a black staff member, Thomas Moss, who informed him about black political issues.
During the 1970s Thurmond continued to build his relationship with the black electorate, but despite this changed political interest in addressing black issues, Thurmond (as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee) initially opposed support of the 1982 Voting Rights Act, which would have extended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that protected blacks’ voting rights. He eventually supported the act.
Over time, Thurmond climbed the political ladder, achieving high political posts such as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and serving as president pro tempore (1981-1987; 1995). He was the longest-lived and longest-serving U.S. senator, having reached the age of 100 during his service. At his 100th birthday celebration, Trent Lott (R-MS) made controversial remarks about Thurmond’s 1948 presidential candidacy that eventually led to Lott resigning from his position as senate majority leader. In January 2003 Thurmond retired from his senate position. He died in the same year on June 26, 2003.
Posthumously, rumors about his having fathered an African American daughter resurfaced and were confirmed when Essie Mae Washington-Williams announced that she was, in fact, Thurmond’s daughter. Thurmond’s fathering of an African American daughter (with the Thurmond family African American housekeeper, Carrie Butler) conflicts with a major principle of segregation— the prohibition of “race mixing,” or miscegenation. According to segregationists, blacks and whites are supposed to be divided in every way of life, especially sexual relations, and antimiscegenation laws in the south banned interracial marriage and interracial sexual relations. Thus Thurmond had covertly defied the racial and sexual social mores that he publicly supported. Thurmond was married successively to Jean Crouch and to Nancy Janice Moore (with whom he had four children); both of them were (white) former Miss South Carolinas.
- Bass, Jack, and Marilyn W. Thompson. 2003. Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.
- Bass, Jack, and Marilyn W. Thompson. 2006. Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond. New York: Perseus.
- Cohodas, Nadine. 1993. Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Frederickson, Kari. 2001. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Lachicotte, Alberta. 1966. Rebel Senator: Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. New York: Devin-Adair.
- Sherrill, Robert. 1968. Gothic Politics in the Deep South: Stars of the New Confederacy. New York: Grossman.
- Strom Thurmond Biography. Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs. http://www.strom.clemson.edu/strom/bio.html.
- Washington-Williams, Essie Mae, and William Stadium. 2005. Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. New York: HarperCollins.
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