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American History Book Review: Strom Thurmond’s America

By Gene Seymour
8/7/2017 • American History Magazine

Strom Thurmond’s America

by Joseph Crespino; Hill & Wang

Strom Thurmond, one-time presidential candidate for the “Dixiecrat” Party and longtime filibustering segregationist U.S. senator, came to be seen as a toothless anachronism by the time he died in 2003, at age 101. Even though the revelation that this once virulent opponent of what he termed “race-mixing” had fathered a mixed-race child decades earlier raised eyebrows, it was largely shrugged off. But as Joseph Crespino argues convincingly, Thurmond’s political impact reached far beyond the nostalgic Old South: He became a key shaper of contemporary Republican thinking on central issues like unions and race, and an overlooked architect of Republican electoral victories ever since.

Crespino’s lucid, illuminating book reveals an outsize political personage whose complexities often eluded supporters and antagonists alike. As a Democratic state senator during the New Deal, Thurmond described himself as “friend to capital, but more of a friend to labor.” By the time he became South Carolina’s governor in 1947, Crespino writes, “the roles slowly reversed,” but Thurmond still spent part of his first year in office making certain that the white men responsible for a black prisoner’s lynching were arrested and convicted. He even opposed the poll tax that served as a roadblock to voting rights and supported increased black education. Crespino sees these less as intimations of a “road not taken” for Thurmond than as calculating efforts to moderate some aspects of segregation while maintaining the status quo.

Once the Truman administration began championing civil rights in 1947, however, Thurmond became an unequivocal voice of hardcore segregationists battling what they considered undue federal intervention in the South’s way of life. In 1948, the Dixiecrats carried most of the “Solid South” but finished well behind the major parties. Still, the election made Thurmond a major figure of Southern resistance. Following his 1954 election to the Senate, the Southern Democrat broadened his opposition against federal “meddling” to encompass the decisions of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren and the National Labor Relations Board—both still anathema to many Republicans.

In 1964, Thurmond bolted to the Republicans and their candidate, Barry Goldwater—not least because Goldwater voted against President Lyndon Johnson’s landmark 1964 civil rights legislation. Though Johnson crushed Goldwater in the general election, Thurmond’s shift heralded a critical realignment: White Southern voters and Northern blue-collar voters disaffected with the Democrats’ embrace of civil rights, unions and other “liberal” causes began voting Republican. In 1968, Thurmond’s vital support of Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential run helped Nixon win—and solidified the issues and causes of today’s Republican base. In the process, he was increasingly lionized—or at least fawned over—in the so-called liberal mainstream media.

When his inconvenient history of racism did come up, Thurmond insisted that he was only following the segregationist law of the time. “Well, Senator,” he was once asked, “did you think about trying to change the law?” A blank stare and a change of subject was his response.

 

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.

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