“Complicated is the key word in the title,” author Jack Bass said of “Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond,” a new biography on the late Senator that comes out today. The biography, which Bass co-wrote with Marilyn Thompson, sheds new light on the life of the Senate’s longest-serving and oldest Member, including details on the relationship he had with his unacknowledged black daughter, Essie Mae Williams.
Throughout the book, the lives of the Senator, who died in 2003, and his daughter are intertwined. “We basically knew the story of his life,” Thompson said in an interview, “and when we started, we had the skeletal framework of her life. … It was enjoyable, journalistically, to put some meat and bones on the skeleton.”
Williams’ life is fleshed out through her somewhat stilted interactions with her father. In letters between the two, their relationship is never mentioned: She refers to him by his various titles, and he calls her by name. Gifts from Thurmond to his daughter to pay for her education and other necessities are referred to as “loans,” though there is no evidence that any attempt was made to pay them back.
Her impact on the South Carolinian’s life is a debatable one, and even the authors are not entirely in agreement. “In my view,” Thompson said, “their relationship never changed or shaped his public position on race; as he became more moderate on racial issues, I don’t think it was because he had a black daughter, it was because he saw the changing political reality.” Bass, on the other hand, believes that Thurmond’s and Williams’ relationship “did make it easier for him when he turned the corner.”
They agree, however, that Thurmond’s impact on the country is an understudied one. Bass pointed out three key years in which Thurmond helped shape the American political landscape.
In 1948, Thurmond broke from the Democratic Party and ran independently under the banner of maintaining segregation, carrying four Southern states and 39 Electoral College votes. “The Dixiecrat campaign was incredibly important, as it broke the
South loose from the old one-party Democratic mentality,” Bass explained. “Psychologically, it really broke it loose, which accelerated the growth of the GOP.”
Another important moment in the political life of Thurmond was his switch to the Republican Party in 1964. “Certainly it was important in South Carolina,” Bass said, “but in the South as a whole as well.” Thurmond played another key role in the political growth of the GOP in the South in 1968 when he helped swing the region to Richard Nixon in the presidential primary. “I’m convinced Nixon couldn’t have gotten the nomination without Thurmond, particularly if [future President Ronald] Reagan got in.”
That same year, Thurmond played an integral role in blocking the elevation of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas from associate to chief justice. “That ended up changing the direction of the Supreme Court. Instead of [Democratic President Lyndon] Johnson filling seats, you had four of Nixon’s handpicked nominees, including [now-Chief Justice William] Rehnquist.
“When your legacy includes changing the direction of the Supreme Court for a generation, I’d say that’s pretty important,” Bass said.
The most controversial aspect of Thurmond’s politics is undoubtedly his manipulation of race as a votegetting tool. As “Strom” shows, early in his career, Thurmond best fit the mold of a progressive Southern Democrat. He took a hard turn later on as he realized there were more votes in racebaiting, culminating with the Dixiecrat campaign in 1948.
“The most interesting and revealing material about his political life goes back to the decision to jump into the 1948 race and getting national kudos for that,” Thompson noted. “One memo … hyped the political visibility that would come from being a states’ rights candidate. That’s why he jumped in.”
Thurmond’s stand for “states’ rights,” the codeword of the day for segregation, had little to do with racial animosity and everything to do with politics. “Certainly, everything Strom did was political,” said Bass, adding that “his political antenna was so keen that he processed the implications of any move like the Dixiecrat campaign.”
The Senator’s eventual moderation on racial issues corresponded to the moderating political landscape. “Blacks now voted, and in larger numbers” as the years went by, Bass said. “White attitudes changed as well.”
However, Thompson said writing Thurmond’s behavior off to political expediency lets him off the hook too lightly. “I have a hard time forgiving him for that,” she said of his long-held segregationist stance. “It set the country back, and really stood in the way of black Americans, including his own daughter. I’ve taken kind of a hard line on this.”