A Record Life

Posted June 27, 2003 at 5:16pm

Former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was a memorable figure who embodied some of the worst aspects of 20th-Century politics, set probably unmatchable records for service and, in the end, demonstrated that political reality perhaps can soften the hardest rock.

In 1954, he was the first Senator ever to be elected by write-in. He became the longest-serving Senator ever, at 48 years in the chamber. When he retired this year, he was the oldest Senator ever at the age of 100. He also holds the record for the longest filibuster, 24 hours and 18 minutes.

The filibuster, of course, was undertaken to block a civil rights bill that would have allowed the federal government to go to court to secure voting rights for blacks in the South. It was as a racial segregationist that Thurmond made his principal mark on American history. It was an ugly one.

In 1948, Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to protest its civil rights platform and the pro-civil rights views of President Harry Truman and became the candidate of the Dixiecrat Party, declaring that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” Thurmond carried four states, but Truman won the election.

In 1964, after passage of the landmark civil rights bill of that year, Thurmond bolted again, this time to the Republican Party to support GOP presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. He thus helped to lead another historic political trend — the migration of anti-civil rights Southern whites to the Republican Party, which made possible the party’s revival in the South. Thurmond always maintained that his opposition to civil rights legislation was not based on racism, but a dedication to states rights, and opposition to Communism.

And in fairness, he deserves to be remembered for more than his civil rights record. Thurmond also was a combat hero in World War II, a staunch defender of the U.S. military, chairman of both the Judiciary Committee and the Armed Services Committee and the Senate’s President Pro Tem. As Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) remarked on Thurmond’s passing, he had “a life really unmatched in public service.”

It’s clear, however, that the moderation of Thurmond’s views on race over the years had more to do with political expediency than remorse about his past. As The New York Times pointed out on Friday, Thurmond was asked in a 1999 interview whether there was anything he would have done differently. “I can’t think of anything,” he replied.

After the 1965 Voting Rights Act swelled the numbers of black voters in the South, Thurmond saw the handwriting on the wall. In 1970, he became one of the first Southern Members to hire a black aide. In later years, he worked hard to secure funding for projects serving blacks in his state and he won more black votes than most Southern Republicans.

Thurmond deserves to be remembered for more than just his civil rights record. But it’s worth noting that his last mark, the forced departure of Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) as Majority Leader, stemmed from the unfortunate parts of Thurmond’s legacy.