28 June 2003
Strom Thurmond, Senator for South Carolina, 1954-2003, was born on December 5, 1902. He died on June 26, 2003, aged 100.
Democrat turned Republican who moved from rabid segregationism to an acceptance of black rights
Strom Thurmond has his place in the history books as the oldest person to serve in the United States Senate, and the man to occupy a senate seat for the longest time. He was 100 when he finally retired last January, and had served in the chamber for a record 48 years.
The earlier part of his career was marked by his vehement opposition to racial integration. As Governor of South Carolina and leader of a group of anti-civil rights Southern Democrats, he stood as States Rights (or Dixiecrat) candidate for the US presidency in 1948, before going on to be a Democrat Senator in 1954.
Switching parties from Democrat to Republican in 1964, he exerted considerable influence both as a kingmaker in the Republican Party and as a stalwart figure in Washington. He lent his support to the recent Republican policy of congressional term limits, even though he had himself enjoyed such a prodigious run in the Senate.
As the years went by and the tide of civil rights legislation overran the segregationist redoubt, Thurmond's own position was much softened. Indeed, he seemed to have no difficulty in reprogramming himself to adapt to the new circumstances, and promoted the careers of a number of individual blacks in various spheres.
James Strom Thurmond was born into a political family in the Deep South, the second of six children. His grandfather had fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War; his father was an attorney, a state legislator and aide to a US senator (he was acquitted, on the ground of self-defence, of murdering one of the senator's opponents).
Thurmond was educated in his hometown, observing senatorial campaigns as a child, before taking a degree in agricultural science and English from Clemson University in 1923. He was a high school teacher for several years and became superintendent of schools for Edgefield County in 1928. Next he completed a three-year law course in a single year of nightly tuition from his father, passing the state Bar exam with distinction in 1930. He then joined his father's law firm and served as city and county attorney from 1930 until 1938, when at the age of 35 he was selected as the youngest circuit court judge in South Carolina. It no doubt helped that he had represented Edgefield County as an unofficial New Dealer in the state Senate since 1933.
He had been in the US Army Reserves since 1933, and when Germany and Italy declared war on the United States in December 1941 he immediately took a leave of absence from the bench. He was commissioned in the First Army's 82nd Airborne Division, and was dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day. He also served in the Pacific and emerged from the war with five battle stars and the rank of lieutenant-colonel. He did not retire from the reserves until 1960, by which time he was a major-general.
He ran successfully for Governor of South Carolina on a populist ticket in 1946, and during his four years in that office he advocated liberal policies including various welfare initiatives. But he was always a staunch defender of racial segregation, and when President Truman chose to announce his civil rights platform at the 1948 Democratic national convention, Thurmond resolved to challenge him as a Dixiecrat candidate. Although he obtained only 2 per cent of the national vote, he carried four states and won 39 votes in the electoral college.
He was out of politics altogether for four years, from January 1951 when he stepped down as governor until 1954 when he became the only US senator to be elected by a write-in vote (meaning that his name did not actually appear on the ballot), after the state Democratic machine, unforgiving of his defection in 1948, had endorsed another candidate. Thurmond carried 37 of the state's 46 counties.
Throughout the 1950s he was cast in the mould of an arch-segregationist, although he later sought to justify this stand on legal-constitutional grounds rather than out of ideological commitment. In 1957 he set a record with a segregationist filibuster in the Senate that lasted for 24 hours and 18 minutes. To train for the ordeal he had gone down to the Senate bath and sat in the sauna for four days running: thus he had thoroughly dehydrated himself and had no need to go to the lavatory until four hours after he had finished speaking. Another senator had brought a gallon of orange juice into the Senate chamber in the hope that Thurmond would drink it and be compelled to relieve himself. Thurmond did indeed quaff the orange juice but, as he once explained: "My body was so tired out, it just absorbed it like a sponge."
On another occasion, in 1964, he left the Commerce Committee several times in order to abrogate a quorum and so prevent the nomination to fill a newly created post to oversee race relations. When another Democrat joshingly tried to pull him into the room, Thurmond wrestled him to the floor and kept him between his legs in a scissor-hold until the committee chairman intervened.
Thurmond was without peer in his hatred of communism, and he castigated the Kennedy Administration for being too liberal in the domestic sphere and too soft on communism abroad. He was not satisfied with Kennedy's refusal to back down in the Cuban missile crisis, and wanted nothing less than the reconquest of Cuba.
The year 1964 was a crucial one in his career because he chose to follow up his 1948 challenge to Democrat power in the South by becoming the first Southern Democrat to defect to the Republican cause and back Senator Barry Goldwater against President Lyndon Johnson. His resistance to civil rights melted away, however, with the pragmatic realisation that much of his constituency would be black after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He embraced an entirely new set of values with little apparent soul-searching, and quickly became as assiduous in courting blacks' support as he had been in opposing reforms to liberate them.
In 1971 he became the first southern senator to hire a black congressional aide; he sponsored a black federal judge in 1979; and in 1983 he voted in favour of the national holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. Jr. He abandoned his longstanding opposition to federal funding for Aids research in 1993 after a personal appeal from a former member of his senate staff who was suffering from the syndrome. While some dismissed Thurmond's tergiversations on such matters as cynical, others regarded them as evidence of his humanity.
In 1968 he emerged as a kingmaker when he swung Southern conservatives behind Richard Nixon as Republican presidential candidate on the assumption that Nixon would stand firm against communism. Thurmond was disappointed when Nixon negotiated an anti-ballistic missile treaty and established diplomatic relations with China. Thereafter, with an almost wilful capacity for backing the wrong horse, he supported Ronald Reagan against Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination then backed John Connally against Reagan in 1980.
In 1981 he briefly found himself third in the line of succession to the presidency when he became pro tem leader of the Republican majority. But his most important role in the 1980s was his chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, during which he engineered the passage of an amendment that introduced a federal death penalty for murder committed in the course of drug-trafficking or for the murder of a policeman during the commission of a felony. Also in this role, he presided over the confirmation hearings of conservative nominees to the Supreme Court (indeed, he led the cross-examination of Clarence Thomas's would-be nemesis, Anita Hill) and he was an influential member of the Armed Services Committee, where he voted in favour of Reagan's rearmament programme.
He maintained a ramrod physical bearing until his very last years, underwent hair transplants after 1963, and resorted to dark brown hair dye. He attributed his persistent good health to vigorous calisthenic exercise, a healthy diet - he was a teetotaller and non-smoker - and a daily effort to increase blood flow to the brain by lying on the floor and raising his feet above his head.
Thurmond was a legendary ladies' man, with a noted weakness for pretty young women, generally expressed in a manner that gave any form of political correctness the widest of berths. He once astonished female witnesses at a senate committee by telling them they were the prettiest bunch of women he had seen in a long time. On another he confided to a girl reporter that she was "cute". Even when confined to a wheelchair he regularly invited female members of his staff and attractive journalists to sit on his lap.
He was twice married, on each occasions to a South Carolina beauty queen. His first wife, Jean, whom he married in 1947, died of a brain tumour in 1960. In 1968, at the age of 66, he married the 25-year-old Nancy Moore, a former Miss Carolina. They went on to have two sons and two daughters before separating in 1991.
He is survived by his second wife and by two sons and a daughter. His first daughter died in 1993 after being struck by a car.
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