Reviewed by Bob Willis
BOB WILLIS is a retired Roanoke Times editorial writer.
He has been dead nearly 10 years now, and for a couple of decades before that many considered him irrelevant, something of a curiosity for his advanced age, his long service in the U.S. Senate and his history as a rabid racist.
A colorful figure he was, sort of a Senator Claghorn at times. But to dismiss him in so cavalier a fashion leaves most of his story untold and his political influence unappreciated. Author Joseph Crespino, a professor of history at Emory University, makes a strong case for his claim that we live in an America shaped significantly by the hand of James Strom Thurmond.
He was a complex personage. As a young South Carolina politician, he was a follower of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and as late as the 1940s called himself a liberal — a term with a different meaning then. As a Southern Democrat, he was by definition a segregationist. But as governor he denounced lynching, opposed the poll tax — a device of an earlier generation to suppress black voting — and backed better education for blacks.
The South did have its progressives, and Thurmond did not line up with such howling racists as Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo. Early on, he was considered a friend of labor who sought to improve economic conditions for everyone. But Harry Truman’s civil rights thrust in 1948 caused Thurmond and hordes of other Southerners to break with the party. With Gov. Fielding Wright of Mississippi, he ran for president on a third-party ticket dubbed Dixiecrat.
Thurmond always disliked the term, coined by a newspaper headline writer; he preferred to be called a States Rights Democrat, in part because he sought a bigger stage for himself and his cause. Right away he began to change history, as his third party denied Thomas Dewey the Southern votes that could have made the Republican president.
The South Carolinian returned to the Democratic Party, but remained active in efforts to block civil rights legislation and to curb liberal influence. He accused some of trying to block propaganda against communism — “anti-anti-communism” — and muttered darkly of unnamed subversives in government.
He rendered his greatest service, first, to Barry Goldwater — switching to the Republican Party during the Arizonan’s presidential run in 1964 — then to Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon as a kingmaker. He helped make Republicans the party of the South, and managed to smooth the rough edges of his own philosophy, shifting his Senate office’s emphasis to services for and recognition of black constituents as well as white. (For decades, he had had a special way of rendering service to a “family friend,” quietly supporting a woman who after his death confirmed rumors that a young Thurmond had fathered her by a black servant.)
It is a story well told, full of insights and new (to me) information.
One of the most telling passages in the book comes from a conversation, recorded and transcribed, between two faithful Thurmond advisers after Reagan’s election. One of them remarks to the other: “You know, you one time made the statement that someday, somebody’s going to run for president on the platform that this is a white man’s country? Well, I never heard of Reagan saying that, but the election turned out that way, didn’t it?”
It was Strom Thurmond’s America.