The Legacy of Strom Thurmond

Mandinkas were the fiercest warriors of Africa. After a Caribbean slave revolt in the 1800s, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the leading intellectual of the Southern gentry, invoked the specter of Mandingo slaughtering white masters as justification for their enslavement. Black male sexual prowess was also a big part of the myth. The often used colloquialism, “once you go black you never go back”–is the myth of the big black, well-endowed buck, Mandingo.

In the 1970s, the myth became the movie “Mandingo” in which one-time heavyweight champ Ken Norton played a noble slave who burns down the white man’s plantation and escapes to freedom with the blond Southern belle in his arms. My mother took us kids to see the “controversial” movie when it was shown at the local drive-in theatre. And at the top of her stack of romance novels was a cover showing a muscular, caramel-colored black man caressing a buxom, blond lass, her ample white breast barely covered by the straps of her torn hoop dress, her long blond ringlets cascading over her shoulder with the title “Mandingo” emblazoned across the cover.

The Mandingo stereotype entraps black males to this day as evidenced by the pop culture embrace of the pimp, gangsta rappers along with a host of psycho-sexual-social illusions. The myth fuels denial over homosexuality and feeds rampant homophobia in the black community. As black gay and bisexual men practice a dangerous sexual secrecy, the AIDS crisis in the black community worsens. As a friend told me, “One of the worst thing to be is a gay black man in the south. The preacher wants you to lead the choir, and maybe even give him a blowjob every now and again, while condemning, denying or damning your very existence from the pulpit.”

As for white women, during slavery a white woman marrying or consensually having a child by a black man usually found herself in legally sanctioned bondage. “Defilement” or being “spoiled” during the Jim Crow era most often meant banishment–or stripped of being “white” for one’s “nigger-loving” ways. White men used “protecting white womanhood,” the first plank in the Klan platform, as a pretext for controlling white women, but in some respects it trapped the men in a psychotic effort to prove their own sexual dominance.

In Thurmond’s youth and political prime, lynching and the fear of it was the primary weapon to discourage black men from looking the “wrong way” at white women let alone having sexual relations. And lynching was accepted at all levels of white society as a means of controlling race mixing. Even in the late seventies, my first organizing job, with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference back when Ralph Abernathy was the head, was over the death of a black man, Mickey McClendon, murdered for dating a white woman. McClendon, from Chester, South Carolina, was shot, tied behind a pick-up truck, set on fire and dragged down a road, much the way James Byrd Jr. was in Jasper, Texas, in 1998. Today, whether it’s Kobe Bryant in Colorado or high school football star Marcus Dixon in Georgia, whenever a black man is accused of the rape of a white woman, black Americans view the alleged crime in the context of history.

Sex is the prevailing theme of Thurmond’s life. While he was alive and after death, the local press gleefully retold the story of a young Strom “sneaking out his upstairs bedroom for a romantic tryst with unnamed women.” Thurmond’s “virility,” his marrying a twenty-two-year-old, Nancy Moore, at age sixty-six, having four children even as an old man and his “secret” black child were all a testimony to Southern white male power.

Thurmond’s initiation in the “customs and traditions” of segregation, sex and white supremacy began with his political mentor Benjamin Ryan Tillman. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a virulent white supremacist, also from Edgefield, Thurmond’s home county, constitutionally (and otherwise) reinstituted white rule after Reconstruction. Pitchfork” Ben was proud to have driven blacks demanding rights out of the state at gunpoint. He and his Sweetwater Sabre Club members wore white shirts stained in red to represent the blood of black men. When Tillman came to power as Governor in 1890, blacks were the majority in the state. Today, blacks represent a third of the population. The decrease is directly due to Tillman’s political legacy. Tillman’s assault on black rights was immediate. He quickly revised the state constitution to ensure legal segregation of the races, stripping blacks of all political and economic power. As a U.S. Senator, Tillman declared, “We of the South have never recognized the right of the Negro to govern white men, and we never will.”

Thurmond’s father, J. William, himself a state legislator, once served as Tillman’s campaign manager. Tillman later rewarded J. William by naming him U.S. Attorney (a job currently held by Strom’s son–Strom Jr.) in a new South Carolina district even though Thurmond had killed a man in an argument over Tillman’s politics. Tillman was a frequent visitor to the Thurmond home, a “symbolic part of the family,” according to Cohodas, and a godfather of sorts to the Thurmond children. But to blacks, “Pitchfork” Ben was the prime purveyor of Negrophobia. And wrapped around Tillmanism was the ideal of the “pure, defenseless southern white woman.” “There is only one crime that warrants lynching, ” he said, “and governor as I am, I would lead a mob to lynch the Negro who ravishes a white woman.” During Tillman’s first term there had been five lynchings, in his second term there were thirteen.

Still, black South Carolinians were initially optimistic about Thurmond, who began his career as a Democrat. As a South Carolina state senator in 1938, despite the Tillman influence, he publicly opposed lynching and declared that the Ku Klux Klan stood for “the most abominable type of lawlessness.” Thurmond called himself a “progressive” and upon election to governor in 1946 he declared, “We need a progressive outlook, a progressive program, a progressive leadership.” He spoke of improving black schools, revising the Tillman Constitution of 1895 and abolishing the Tillman” poll tax that was used to keep blacks from voting. He supported “equal right for women in every respect,” saying, “women should serve on boards, commissions, and other positions of importance in the state government.” He also called for “equal pay for equal work for women.”

At his inaugural Thurmond said, “more attention should be given to Negro education. The low standing of South Carolina educationally is due primarily to the high illiteracy and lack of education among our Negroes. If we provide better educational facilities for them, not only will much be accomplished in human values, but we shall raise our per capita income as well as the educational standing of the state.” But Thurmond was not calling for an end to segregation, he was hoping for a new and improved “separate but equal.” It would take the federal courts to strike down “separate but equal” and to force desegregation, or “integration”, as the Thurmond forces would define it.

Thurmond stood squarely with Tillman on race mixing–he was against it and let stand the constitutional prohibition against it. It took 103 years before South Carolina finally voted to remove a ban on interracial marriage from its state constitution. Although it was not actively enforced, Tillman added the clause to the state’s constitution in 1895 prohibiting “marriage of a white person with a Negro or mulatto or a person who shall have one-eighth or more of Negro blood.” Up until 1997, state legislators refused to allow voters to decide whether to remove the ban. A constitutional amendment, passed in 1998, finally deleted the line.

Still, at the start of his career blacks gave Thurmond high marks for his handling of the Willie Earle lynching, which stamped his administration as “liberal without being radical” by whites outside the south. On February 16, 1947, a young black man from Pickens County was arrested and charged with the murder of Thomas Brown, a white Greenville taxicab driver. The next day a mob broke into the Pickens County jail, took Earle, shot him, stabbed him and then beat him to death on the outskirts of town. The FBI and state officials investigated the crime at the behest of Thurmond, who also called for the prosecution of those accused of lynching. But after a highly public trial the jury acquitted the accused men.

However, when President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces and announced his broad civil rights program in 1948, Thurmond could not tolerate the challenge thus posed to the “customs and traditions” that defined his deepest beliefs. Thurmond ran for President that year as the “Dixiecrat” States Rights candidate, admonishing the faithful that holding power boiled down to one thing–race and he would make sure that only white men held it. As Northern Democrats pushed for civil rights, Thurmond and his fellow Southern Democratic governors cried “states’ rights” just as their ancestors did to justify African enslavement. As author Kari Frederickson wrote, Thurmond and other Dixiecrat governors appealed to racist, “conservative white men suffering from a self-diagnosed case of political impotency.”

Thurmond as Tillman’s political heir was the icon of the new “anti-miscegenation” movement. In his acceptance speech at the Birmingham meeting announcing his presidential bid he speechified, “All the bayonets in the Army cannot force the ‘Negarah’ into our home, our schools, our churches and our places of recreation.”

Candidate Thurmond’s platform stood for segregation and against race mixing. When the votes were counted Thurmond had 1.1 million votes, won 4 states and garnered 38 electoral votes. 1.1 million Americans voted in favor of segregation–it was not enough to defeat Truman, but the Democratic Party was never the same.

Eventually Thurmond was elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate in 1954, a post he would retain for a half century, until his retirement in January 2003. Throughout his congressional career, he opposed almost every major civil rights initiative. In 1956, he authored the infamous Southern Manifesto–a document signed by 19 of the 22 southern senators that urged the south to defy–as they put it–the Supreme Court’s “clear abuse of judicial power” in outlawing segregation in public schools. In 1957, he executed the longest filibuster in history while trying to halt the first Civil Rights Act proposed in the Senate and backed by Eisenhower.

Lyndon Johnson’s success in passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the last straw for Thurmond. He left the Democratic Party and signed on with Republican Barry Goldwater. Upon leaving, Thurmond declared, “The party of our fathers is dead.”

Thurmond’s departure signaled a major shift in American politics. It was the birth of South Carolinian Lee Atwater, Jesse Helms, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott’s Republican Party. The Thurmond defection prompted the GOP appeal to white Southern conservatives and foreshadowed Richard Nixon’s race-inspired “southern strategy.” This framework exists today. Race supremacy is the ideological glue that keeps white men in the south in the Republican Party. Today they are called the “Bubba vote” and NASCAR dads, but the appeal is build on Tillmanism, the Dixiecrat Movement, the Southern Manifesto. It’s almost always couched in the language of “states rights,” but race and social control is the subtext.

Race politics explains Ronald Reagan beginning his 1980 campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the place where civil rights workers’ Michael Schwerner, James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman were murdered. His declaration then, “I believe in states rights,” sent the same message as George W. Bush’s 2000 sojourn to the fundamentalist college Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina. The school’s founder has often been linked to the Klan and for years provided a Biblical sanction for racism. The school refused to admit blacks until 1971 and banned interracial dating until 2000.

In the 70s, as the country’s racial attitudes changed Thurmond did as the self-serving do to stay in office–he changed–at least cosmetically. With blacks representing a third of the voters in South Carolina he hired the first black man ever employed by a southern senator and actively re-courted the black vote. Thomas Moss, a Korean War veteran and organizer with the meat packers union (in the “right to work state”) in Orangeburg, SC, headed the Voter Education Project, a program that encouraged blacks to register to vote. Working with Moss, Thurmond began championing grants to black colleges, businesses, and municipalities. He voted in favor of extending the Voting Rights Act–a law that guaranteed the federal government’s right to enforce a citizen’s right to vote. He also voted in favor of the Fair Housing Act and the Martin Luther King federal holiday. His reward, during his 1978 re-election bid, 10 of South Carolina’s 11 black mayors endorsed him.

Back in 1996, I was organizing a national conference on the epidemic of church fires in the South. As it just so happened, South Carolina led the nation in the number of church fires and the National Council of Churches was sponsoring the conference being held in the state. An old friend and NAACP member Joann Watson of Detroit made the trip down south. And as fate would have it, Joann and I were talking in the lobby of the Downtown Holiday Inn when who should stroll in–Strom in the flesh, looking kind of dazed but still moving, his aide not a step away. Joann immediately threw her two arms up in the air and cried like Moses appealing to Pharaoh in a strong but not loud voice, “Senator, let my people go!” Strom, leaning just a little, stopped, stuck his hand out to Joann and said in a clear twangy voice, “Go where? I love everybody. Everybody’s my friend!”

Thurmond was the epitome of the classic pork belly politician. Graduate from high school and you’d probably get a letter from Thurmond. If a parent had trouble reaching a kid in the military, call Thurmond’s office. Need help with the V.A.–call ole Strom. The “rural myth” is that Strom shook the hand of almost every South Carolinian. His apologists want us to remember that Thurmond.

When black State Senator Kay Patterson of Columbia agreed to eulogize Thurmond it was front-page news all across, the state. Patterson said, “Strom’s experience is “on the road to Damascus. I have supported him since he left his segregationist ways and became a real American citizen and tried to be the senator for all the people of the state.” Patterson attitude mirrored African Americans optimistic hope for Thurmond when he began his career.

But a new generation was reminded of Thurmond’s legacy and iconic status at his 100th birthday party. Mississippi Senator Trent Lott praised Thurmond’s 1948 campaign saying; “I want to say this about my state. When Strom ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” Although Lott fell on his sword and apologized all over himself, his signal was unmistakable. Had it not been for blacks getting rights and race mixing, the world of white men with total power would be intact.

In the end, regardless of whatever changes Thurmond made later in life, his legacy can be described in two words–“Segregation Forever.” Or maybe, “Segregation and Hypocrisy Forever!” Even if Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ name is chiseled along side the names of his other children onto the Strom Thurmond statue that stands facing the Confederate Women’s Monument on the Statehouse grounds, his contradictions and hypocrisy will still be etched in stone. But maybe, in a way, the day they chisel that name will be the day white South Carolina finally begin to confront its own contradictions?

KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a CounterPunch contributer and civil rights organizer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached at:



Kevin Alexander Gray is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics (CounterPunch/AK Press) and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is the editor, along with JoAnn Wypijewski and Jeffrey St. Clair, of Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence from CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at