Strom Thurmond’s America

The Book of the Week is “Strom Thurmond’s America” by Joseph Crespino, published in 2012.

Born in December 1902 in South Carolina, Thurmond grew up in the small-town farming community of Edgefield. His father was an attorney and his family was wealthy and aristocratic.

In 1929, Thurmond became schools superintendent in his hometown. He favored giving a teachers a raise and extending the academic year, funded by the state through a beer tax. He entered into a legal apprenticeship under his father, and in 1933, as a Democrat, was elected to South Carolina’s state senate. Three years later, he became a circuit-court judge, traveling around the state to preside over county-court cases.

During the Depression, the way Thurmond and his fellow southern Democrats defined themselves as “liberal” allowed them to support FDR’s New Deal in order to provide financial aid for white farmers and low-skilled industrial workers in their districts.

After fighting in WWII, Thurmond ran for governor as a Democrat. He was a white-supremacist, mudslinging, drama-queen, populist demagogue while campaigning. Although he did some good things, his actions were always politically expedient. In 1947, he actually delivered on a promise to have South Carolina law enforcement and FBI agents round up 31 (white) men who were suspects in the lynching of a black man. However, a jury of twelve white men acquitted the suspects.

At the time, the United States was helping to establish the United Nations– an international body that concerned itself with respecting human rights. There was pressure on the state of South Carolina to help America maintain a good reputation in that regard, so Thurmond spoke in favor of a federal anti-lynching law. Thurmond and his fellow Dixiecrats wanted to continue to prevent intermingling of blacks and whites so as to not contaminate the genes of the latter. He therefore denigrated every one of president Truman’s civil rights proposals.

And Thurmond was always arguing for state-level laws. To that end, in 1948, he ran for president on the States’ Rights ticket (a third party) in order to play the spoiler against Truman to kill civil rights legislation. But postwar, he returned to a lucrative law practice.

Thurmond then sided with corporate America and the kings of industry in oil, cattle, sugar planters, mercantile and shipping entities, steel, coal, and textiles, etc. He became rabidly anti-Communist and anti-union. Up until 1950 in South Carolina, voting for the Republican Party was NOT anonymous. If one wanted to do so, one had to request a ballot at the polls when he or she voted.

Thurmond ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1954 as a write-in candidate (due to the previous officeholder’s death) even though his fellow Democrats were less than thrilled that he had disloyally run as a third-party candidate in 1948.

A litany of events and groups influenced voters in the South: the Korean War, the Democratic National Committee, the federal goings-on, the CIO, the NAACP, the national labor movement, the upward mobility of urbanites, and backlash (by whites) against southern blacks consequent to Truman’s civil rights legislation.

In the early 1960’s, Thurmond executed a series of far-right-wing campaigns that failed. For one, he pushed for the Nike-Zeus missile program that would help America respond to an attack by the U.S.S.R.; another had him holding hearings to stop JFK from scotching a military education initiative that would spew anti-Communist rhetoric. Finally, in September 1964, Thurmond announced he was a (Barry) Goldwater Republican.

Two prominent legal minds (William Rehnquist and Robert Bork) expressed their opinions that the 1964 Civil Rights Act would lead to a tattletale culture when it came to civil rights violations. Another indicator of the mentality of then-conservatives was that of blaming the Supreme Court for its pro-desegregation stance in a 1969 ruling in a major case, instead of blaming president Nixon.

Two years later, however, in 1971, Thurmond hired a black staffer (!) He needed to repair his reputation after he backed conservative Democrat congressman Albert Watson, who agreed with him on civil rights issues but ran a dirty campaign in 1970. Thurmond needed to woo moderate Republican voters to get reelected in 1972. Nevertheless, he stuck with Nixon until the end.

In sum, the current COVID face-covering issue in American schools is as controversial as desegregation-busing was from the mid-1960’s into the mid-1970’s. Shortly before he was reelected in 1972, Thurmond actually said, “If it [busing] improves the quality of education, then busing is good. If it doesn’t, then I think it’s bad.” According to their respective memoirs, busing was good for Vernon Jordan, but was socially traumatic and a hardship for Donna Brazile.

So letting local officials decide, pursuant to the majority of their constituents’ preferences, might have been a better policy. And if local officials acted against those preferences, then community organizing and political activism in neighborhoods that believed in education, would likely lead to some changes in the next election year. Dissatisfaction would reach critical mass eventually, in those districts.

Incidentally, in 1975, Senator Joe Biden listened to his constituents in his state of Delaware. He wrote a bill making race irrelevant to assignment of students and teachers to schools.

Read the book to learn of: the skeleton in Thurmond’s closet, his presidential-run results, his one-man filibuster, the historical events (Supreme Court cases and election campaigns) that compelled him to change with the times (or else he would see the end of his political career), the differences between his style of campaigning and that of Jesse Helms, and much more.