On Political Books

September/October 2012 A Malevolent Forrest Gump

Strom Thurmond's loathsomeness on race obscures his larger role: he was there at all the major choke points of modern conservative history.

By Michael O'Donnell

Strom Thurmond’s America
by Joseph Crespino
Hill and Wang, 416 pp.

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.

Michael O'Donnell , a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly, is a lawyer living in Chicago with his family.


  • Gzoref on August 28, 2012 10:42 PM:

    "Thurmonds taint...is as thick as blood."

    Michael O'Donnell - The Washington Monthly

    Nice little blurb for the book jacket :)

  • gubbish on September 09, 2012 7:13 AM:

    Crespino: "Yet the turmoil in American politics and in cities across the country over the past several years cast Thurmond in a strange new light."

    O'Donnell, could you spell out what that turmoil was for the younger readers?

  • Jon on September 09, 2012 8:24 AM:

    George Romney may have been horrified by Strom Thurmond but it's unlikely he'd have worried Mitt that much. He died too soon, really; shame he wasn't around to see the GOP become the party of a twisted version of the Confederacy - the South truly has risen again!

  • Mike on September 09, 2012 9:47 AM:

    Jon: Nice spin comment. You can speculate all you want, but why don't you ask Mitt Romney instead.

    I would posit there are reactionarys in the Democratic Party that lean to the opposite extreme precisely because of Thurmond. Extremism causes extremism. Both political parties can lay claim to extreme elements in their parties at this moment; and both can look to the legacy of not only Thurmond but others. One man did not do all this.

  • ifthethunderdontgetya on September 09, 2012 2:45 PM:

    What's the opposite extreme, Mike?

    Too much equality?

  • martin on September 19, 2012 9:15 AM:

    The SC state capitol bldg in Columbia has a statue of a young (50ish) Strom Thurmond striding vigorously somewhere. The plaque on the statue recites a number of his accomplishments, including the number of children. At some point, the original number was obviously chiseled out and updated. A permanent reminder of what a lying sack o crap he was.

  • Marnie on September 19, 2012 9:59 AM:

    I believe Strom was also the man who publicly declared that our military should assassinate Clinton.

  • martin on September 19, 2012 10:23 AM:

    Jesse Helms, possibly the only elected official worse than Thurmond, warned Clinton to watch himself around the military in NC. I don't think Thurmond went that far. But then, I may have missed it.

  • James on October 09, 2012 4:22 PM:

    Wonderful, insightful review.

    Hard to believe such overt racism was expressed in public by an important Senator not all that long ago.

    The party switch is notable. LBJ said to MLK upon signing the Civil Rights Bill "Martin...there goes the South to the Republicans for the next 50 years". He was spot on.