Strom Thurmond's America
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"Do not forget that ‘skill and integrity' are the keys to success." This was the last piece of advice on a list Will Thurmond gave his son Strom in 1923. The younger Thurmond would keep the words in mind throughout his long and colorful career as one of the South's last race-baiting demagogues and as a national power broker who, along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, was a major figure in modern conservative politics.
But as the historian Joseph Crespino demonstrates in Strom Thurmond's America, the late South Carolina senator followed only part of his father's counsel. Political skill was the key to Thurmond's many successes; a consummate opportunist, he had less use for integrity. He was a thoroughgoing racist―he is best remembered today for his twenty-four-hour filibuster in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957―but he fathered an illegitimate black daughter whose existence he did not publicly acknowledge during his lifetime. A onetime Democrat and labor supporter in the senate, he switched parties in 1964 and helped to dismantle New Deal protections for working Americans.
If Thurmond was a great hypocrite, though, he was also an innovator who saw the future of conservative politics before just about anyone else. As early as the 1950s, he began to forge alliances with Christian Right activists, and he eagerly took up the causes of big business, military spending, and anticommunism. Crespino's adroit, lucid portrait reveals that Thurmond was, in fact, both a segregationist and a Sunbelt conservative. The implications of this insight are vast. Thurmond was not a curiosity from a bygone era, but rather one of the first conservative Republicans we would recognize as such today. Strom Thurmond's America is about how he made his brand of politics central to American life.
blacks had for Humphrey.75 Thurmond’s endorsement of Nixon represented the new political marriage that he had made with the politics of the Sunbelt. White-collar professionals drawn by the Sunbelt’s booming economy had been the margin that allowed Nixon to become the first Republican president in the twentieth century to win Spartanburg County, long a textile-oriented Democratic stronghold.76 The vote symbolized Spartanburg’s and Greenville’s metamorphosis from overgrown Carolina mill towns to
in the Willie Earle case—occurred in neighboring Georgia that summer. Near the tiny town of Monroe, about forty-five miles east of Atlanta, an unmasked group of fifteen to twenty men shot and killed four African Americans, two women and two men, one of whom was a war veteran recently returned from the Pacific.80 The Monroe murders sparked outrage across the nation and prompted reinvigorated drives for a federal antilynching law.81 The murders played a major role in President Truman’s executive
grant state control of the tidelands.94 A caucus of southerners at the Democratic National Convention in July passed two resolutions: the first opposed President Truman’s civil rights proposals; the second favored state control of the tidelands.95 States’ Righters in Birmingham vigorously declared their support for state control. When the Birmingham leaders announced that they would field their own candidates for national office, suspicions grew that wealthy oil interests, eager to deal with more
and inflamed passions among his southern supporters. Thurmond initially declined offers to participate in the inaugural festivities but, not wanting to appear the spoilsport, accepted the invitation at the last minute. From his reviewing stand, President Truman “displayed intense interest in everything passing in front of him.” Yet as the car carrying Strom and Jean Thurmond approached, the actress Tallulah Bankhead, a guest of Truman’s and a member of one of Alabama’s famed Democratic families,
the town of Edgefield. He rose to prominence in state politics and was elected governor in 1890 as the defender of the small farmer. Though a stalwart agrarian reformer, he was careful to appropriate populism for South Carolina Democrats, avoiding the biracial coalitions that characterized populist movements in some southern states. In 1894, he replaced Matthew Butler in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1918. He was an influential advocate of the 1895 constitution, which