instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

STROM: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond

What others are saying about Strom:

Good Old Boys
The Washington Post

A review of Strom and
Here's Where I Stand: A Memoir By Jesse Helms

Reviewed by Michael Lind

Even in his second century of life, the late Strom Thurmond was the center of controversy. On December 5, 2001, at a gala party on Capitol Hill celebrating Thurmond's 100th birthday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi paid tribute to the long-serving South Carolina senator, who had been the presidential candidate of the segregationist States' Rights Democrats in 1948. "I want to say this about my state," Lott declared. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either." Lott's remarks created a firestorm that ended only when he resigned as majority leader.

In telling the story of their fellow South Carolinian, Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson show how the South helped to shape modern America by shaping Thurmond. In 1947, the New York Times had published an editorial entitled "Strom Thurmond, Hope of the South," praising South Carolina's then governor for his progressive programs. But when President Truman committed the United States to civil rights in 1948, Thurmond led the Southern segregationists who walked out of the Democratic Convention and formed the so-called Dixiecrats. Accepting their presidential nomination in July 1948, Thurmond declared that "there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to . . . admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches." Before Alabama's George Wallace, Bass and Thompson write, "no one symbolized resistance to civil rights for African Americans more than Thurmond. In the Senate, the former Dixiecrat set a filibuster record when speaking against the 1957 Civil Rights Act." Indeed, Thurmond broke a lot of records; by the time of his death, shortly after having retired from the Senate at the age of 100, he had become both the oldest and the longest-serving senator in U.S. history.

Thurmond's libido made his life complicated indeed. According to Bass and Thompson, Thurmond was romantically involved with Sue Logue, the first woman ever sent to the electric chair in South Carolina, who played a role in a murderous family feud. In 1968, the 67-year-old widower married his second wife, a 22-year-old former Miss South Carolina. In his nineties, he would impress visitors by doing push-ups in his Senate office.

Unknown to almost everyone, the symbol of Southern racism had a black daughter. Six months after his death on June 26, 2003, a 78-year-old African American woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams held a press conference in which she revealed, "My father's name was James Strom Thurmond" -- a fact that Thurmond's family confirmed. Her mother -- Carrie Butler, then a 16-year-old maid in his parents' household -- had been impregnated by the 22-year-old Thurmond at a time when "miscegenation" was illegal under South Carolina law. According to Armstrong Williams, a black conservative whom Thurmond patronized late in life, " 'When a man brings a child into the world, he should take care of the child,' said Thurmond, who then added, 'She'll never say anything and neither will you -- not while I'm alive.' " Exactly one year after his funeral, the name "Essie Mae" was added to the list of Thurmond's children on the pedestal of the statue of Thurmond on the grounds of the Columbia, S.C., statehouse.

Like Thurmond, Jesse Helms, a fellow Republican who served as a senator from North Carolina from 1973 until 2003, symbolized the white Southern backlash against racial integration and social liberalism. Helms gained a political following in the 1960s as a commentator on Raleigh's WRAL-TV and the Tobacco Radio Network with his denunciations of the civil rights movement, liberalism and communism.

Unlike Thurmond and Wallace, who reached out to black voters later in their careers, Helms has no regrets. In his old age, Thurmond voted for a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.; Helms voted against.

Ultimately, Helms is a minor figure. But Thurmond will be remembered, along with Wallace, in connection with the regional realignment that has made Southern and Southwestern conservatives the dominant force in the federal government. Bass and Thompson make a persuasive case that Thurmond was one of the most influential American politicians of the 20th century. "Thurmond's political legacy is found not in the annals of legislative achievement but in his pivotal role in reshaping America's political culture," Bass and Thompson write. By winning the electoral votes of four Deep South states as the Dixiecrats' presidential candidate in 1948 and then becoming a Republican in 1964 to campaign for Barry Goldwater, Thurmond began the process by which white conservatives in the former Confederacy first joined and then took over what had once been the party of Lincoln. Bass and Thompson give Thurmond credit for helping Nixon win in 1968 by "thwarting Alabama Governor George Wallace's third-party drive."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

Foreign Affairs
September/October 2005

Reviewed by Walter Russell Mead

When Strom Thurmond died in 2003 at the age of 100, he left behind one of the most complex and important legacies in contemporary U.S. politics. His father, who shot a man in broad daylight for insulting him (and was acquitted by a jury of his peers), was an adviser to "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, head of the faction of South Carolina Democrats that ended Reconstruction by suppressing the African American vote. Strom inherited this mantle and carried four states as the Dixiecrat anti-civil rights candidate in 1948. A hard-line segregationist in a state of hard-liners, Thurmond led the resistance to civil rights until, as black voters began to make their presence felt, he started hiring black staff and began to serve black constituents with the same tenacity that had endeared him to generations of white South Carolinians. As a founder of the southern wing of the Republican Party, he became a presidential kingmaker and a key figure in turning courts back to the right.

In this riveting, Faulknerian book, Bass and Thompson give the first detailed account of Thurmond's relations with his "other" family -- headed by the dignified Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Thurmond's illegitimate African American daughter, whose mother, originally a teenage servant in young Thurmond's family home, was his occasional companion for many years. (Among his other dangerous liaisons was a relationship with the formidable murderess Sue Logue, the first woman the state of South Carolina ever sent to the electric chair.) This portrait of Thurmond's life, a mixture of honor and intrigue, of Christian faith and dirty doings, describes more than the life of one man; it opens a window onto a region and a culture that foreigners and non-southern Americans must understand to have a clear picture of how the United States works.

Thurmond, in public and private
The Charlotte Observer
June 26, 2005

Special to the Observer

If you buy this book, you will get a two-for-one deal. You will learn all about Strom Thurmond's life, capped by being the longest-serving U.S. senator, and all about his hidden-away African American daughter.
Bass and Thompson, both respected veteran observers of S.C. politics, provide parallel tracings of the lives of both Thurmond and his daughter, who had remained silent for so long amid rumors of their relationship.

Undoubtedly this book never could have been published while Thurmond was alive. But his death on June 26, 2003 at the age of 100 cleared the way for his daughter's decision to go public in December of that year, marking an explosive footnote to Thurmond's tumultuous and controversial career.

Even in death, Thurmond continued to confound critics and friends. He chose one of the members of the opposition, Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, to give the eulogy. It is a moving and eloquent statement that the authors chose to publish in its entirety.

This excerpt doesn't do it justice, but provides the flavor: "Like all of us, Strom was a product of his time. But he understood people. He cared for them. He truly wanted to help. He knew how to read people, how to move them, how to get things done."

... Was he a racist, perhaps to garner votes from his white constituents when his black ones had no vote? Undoubtedly. He fought hard against civil rights legislation. But again he confused his critics as blacks began to get the vote by becoming the first senator from the Deep South to name an African American to his staff, and he backed many African American causes during his long career.

Thurmond was one of the most politically astute officeholders in recent U.S. history and is still the only senator to be elected on a write-in ballot. This occurred in 1954.

In 1964, Thurmond switched parties, saying that he wasn't leaving the Democratic Party, but that the Democratic Party had left him. (I witnessed the change as a young Columbia bureau chief for The Charlotte Observer.) His departure may have paved the way for others and helped set the stage for the eventual domination of the South by the GOP.

Bass and Thompson pull no punches in describing Thurmond's numerous amorous adventures. The book races along with one titillating detail after another.

But it's about more than that. It's about a legend in his own time, even though the legend is already beginning to fade.

Marion A. Ellis is the author or co-author of 10 books. The latest is "Dean Colvard: Quiet Leader," published by the UNC Charlotte Foundation.