Strom Thurmond, symbol of segregation, dies at 100

Click to follow
The Independent US

President George Bush led the American political world yesterday in paying tribute to Strom Thurmond, the segregationist former South Carolina senator and presidential candidate who died on Thursday after one of the most remarkable careers.

In a written statement, Mr Bush, who hosted a 100th birthday party at the White House in December for the senator, who was still sitting at the time, praised him as a friend who had led an extraordinary life. Even even at the end it had a capacity to cause turmoil.

A similar celebration on Capitol Hill led to the downfall of Trent Lott as Senate Republican majority leader, after he said the US "wouldn't have had all these problems" if the rest of the country had followed the example of his native Mississippi, South Carolina and two other southern states in voting for Mr Thurmond in 1948.

Those ill-judged words generated angry criticism of Mr Lott as an unreconstructed racist, and considerable embarrassment in the White House. Mr Bush issued a strong rebuke that made his position untenable, and a few days later Mr Lott resigned.

Senator Thurmond died in hospital at his native Edgefield, a picturesque town in South Carolina, where he was born on 5 December, 1902, and whose square has a statue of its most famous son. His body will lie in state in South Carolina's state-house in Columbia, before burial in a family plot in Edgefield cemetery.

His career encapsulated the 20th-century history of the American South. He was a racist and diehard segregationist who ran as a Dixiecrat for President against Harry Truman in 1948, whose crossover from the Democrats to the Republicans foreshadowed the Republican capture of the South that transformed national politics.

He held the record for the longest Senate filibuster (24 hours and 18 minutes in 1957, in protest at a civil rights measure). He was the last serving US politician to have won the votes of veterans of the American Civil War (in local elections in South Carolina in the 1920s), and the last to have participated in the 1944 D-Day landings, when he was decorated for valour.

As the tributes flowed in yesterday, Mr Thurmond's controversial racist past was mostly forgotten. "One of the greatest people I have ever known," was the judgement of Orrin Hatch, his fellow Senate Republican from Utah.

"A giant oak in the field of public service has fallen," said Ernest Hollings, Senator Thurmond's colleague from South Carolina who, despite 36 years in the Senate, had to wait until he was 81 and January of this year to earn the title of senior senator from the state. South Carolina's graveyards, it is commonly said, are full of aspiring politicians who waited for Strom Thurmond to retire.

As news of his death reached Washington, Congress interrupted its business to remember him. "He was a governor, a presidential candidate, a soldier, a citizen," Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, said on the Senate floor.

Of greatest historical significance was his abandonment of the Democratic Party in the mid-1960s in disgust at the civil rights policies of a Democratic President, Lyndon Johnson. The move set a trend that transformed the south from Democratic stronghold into cornerstone of an emerging Republican majority. Developments were carefully noted by Richard Nixon, whose race-pandering "southern strategy" helped him to win the White House in 1968.

Over the subsequent 35 years, Republicans have dominated presidential politics. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the only Democrats to interrupt the trend, were both from the South. Senator Thurmond's race views moderated over the years, and he was among the first southern senators to hire black staff.

By the time he won his eighth and final term in 1996 at the age of 93, Senator Thurmond was failing. He was hard of hearing, his steps shaky. He travelled the corridors of Congress in a wheelchair, living in special quarters at the Walter Reed military hospital.

He left few legislative landmarks in Washington. But by common consent, few senators have served their constituents as assiduously. Therein lay the secret of his enduring popularity and political success.

Comments