Biography of Strom Thurmond, Segregationist Politician

Photograph of politician Strom Thurmond
Strom Thurmond. Getty Images

Strom Thurmond was a segregationist politician who ran for president in 1948 on a platform opposed to civil rights for African Americans. He later served 48 years—an astonishing eight terms—as a U.S. Senator from South Carolina. In the later decades of his career, Thurmond obscured his views on race by claiming that he had only ever been opposed to excessive federal power.

Early Life and Career

James Strom Thurmond was born December 5, 1902 in Edgefield, South Carolina.

His father was an attorney and prosecutor who was also deeply involved in state politics. Thurmond graduated from Clemson University in 1923 and worked in local schools as an athletic coach and teacher.

Thurmond became Edgefield County's director of education in 1929. He was tutored in law by his father and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1930, at which point he became a county attorney. At the same time, Thurmond was becoming involved with politics, and in 1932 he was elected as a state senator, a position he held in 1938.

After his term as state senator ended, Thurmond was appointed a state circuit judge. He held that position until 1942, when he joined the U.S. Army during World War II. During the war, Thurmond served in a civil affairs unit, which was charged with creating governmental functions in newly liberated territories. The position was not a sedate one: Thurmond landed in Normandy aboard a glider on D-Day, and saw action in which he took Germans soldiers prisoner.

Following the war, Thurmond returned to political life in South Carolina. Running a campaign as a war hero, he was elected governor of the state in 1947.

Dixiecrat Presidential Campaign

In 1948, as President Harry S. Truman moved to integrate the U.S. military and embark on other civil rights initiatives, southern politicians responded with outrage.

The Democratic Party in the South had long stood for segregation and Jim Crow rule, and as Democrats gathered for their national convention in Philadelphia, southerners reacted fiercely.

One week after the Democrats convened in July 1948, leading southern politicians gathered for a breakaway convention in Birmingham, Alabama. Before a crowd of 6,000, Thurmond was nominated as the group's presidential candidate.

The splinter faction of the Democratic Party, which became known in the press as the Dixiecrats, pledged opposition to President Truman. Thurmond spoke at the convention, where he denounced Truman and claimed that Truman's program of civil rights reforms "betrayed the South."

The efforts of Thurmond and the Dixiecrats posed a serious problem for Truman. He would be facing Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican candidate who had already run for president, and the prospect of losing the electoral votes of southern states (which had long been known as "The Solid South") could be disastrous.

Thurmond campaigned energetically, doing all he could to cripple Truman's campaign. The strategy of the Dixiecrats was to deny both major candidates a majority of electoral votes, which would throw the presidential election into the House of Representatives.

If the election went to the House, both candidates would be forced to campaign for the votes of members of Congress, and southern politicians assumed that they could force candidates to turn against civil rights.

On Election Day 1948, what became known as the States Rights' Democratic ticket won the electoral votes of four states: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Thurmond's home state of South Carolina. However, the 39 electoral votes Thurmond received did not prevent Harry Truman from winning the election.

The Dixiecrat campaign was historically significant as it marked the first time the Democratic voters in the South began to turn away from the national party over the issue of race. Within 20 years, Thurmond would play a role in the major realignment of the two major parties, as the Democrats became the party associated with civil rights and the Republicans veered towards conservatism.

Famous Filibuster

After his term as governor ended in 1951, Thurmond returned to private law practice. His political career seemed to have ended with the Dixiecrat campaign, as establishment Democrats resented the danger he had posed to the party in the 1948 election. In 1952, he vocally opposed the candidacy of Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson.

As the issue of civil rights began to build in the early 1950s, Thurmond began speaking out against integration. In 1954 he ran for a U.S. Senate seat in South Carolina. Without support from the party establishment, he ran as a write-in candidate, and against the odds, he won. In the summer of 1956, he received some national attention by once again urging southerners to split off and form a third political party that would stand for "states' rights," which meant, of course, a policy of segregation. The threat didn't materialize for the election of 1956.

In 1957, as Congress debated a civil rights bill, southerners were outraged but most accepted that they did not have the votes to stop the legislation. Thurmond, however, chose to make a stand. He took to the Senate floor on the evening of August 28, 1957 and began speaking. He held the floor for 24 hours and 18 minutes, setting a record for a Senate filibuster.

Thurmond's marathon speech brought him national attention and made him even more popular with segregationists. But it did not stop the bill from passing.

Changing Party Alignments

When Barry Goldwater ran for president in as a Republican in 1964, Thurmond broke from the Democrats to support him.

And as the Civil Rights Movement transformed America in the mid-1960s, Thurmond was one of the prominent conservatives who migrated from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

In the election of 1968, the support of Thurmond and other new arrivals to the Republican Party helped secure the victory of Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon. And in following decades, the South itself transformed from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican bastion.

Later Career

Following the tumult of the 1960s, Thurmond forged a somewhat more moderate image, leaving behind his reputation as a segregationist firebrand. He became a fairly conventional senator, focusing on pork barrel projects that would help his home state. In 1971, he made news when he became one of the first southern senators to hire a black staff member. The move, his obituary in the New York Times later noted, was a reflection of increased African American voting because of legislation he had once opposed.

Thurmond was easily elected to the Senate every six years, only stepping down a few weeks after reaching the ago of 100. He left the Senate in January 2003 and died soon after, on June 26, 2003. 

Legacy

A few months after Thurmond's death, Essie-Mae Washington-Williams came forward and revealed that she was Thurmond's daughter. Washington-Williams' mother, Carrie Butler, was an African-American woman who, at age 16, had been employed as a domestic worker at Thurmond's family home. During that time, the 22-year-old Thurmond had fathered a child with Butler.

Raised by an aunt, Washington-Williams only learned who her real parents were when she was a teenager.

Though Thurmond never publicly acknowledged his daughter, he provided financial support for her education, and Washington-Williams occasionally visited his Washington office. The revelation that one of the South's most ardent segregationists had a biracial daughter created controversy. Civil Rights leader Jesse Jackson commented to the New York Times, "He fought for laws that kept his daughter segregated and in an inferior position. He never fought to give her first-class status."

Thurmond led the movement of southern Democrats as they migrated to the Republican Party as an emerging conservative bloc. Ultimately, he left a legacy through his segregationist policies and the transformation of the major U.S. political parties. 

Strom Thurmond Fact Facts

  • Full Name: James Strom Thurmond
  • Occupation: Segregationist politician and U.S. Senator for 48 years.
  • Born: December 5, 1902 in Edgefield, South Carolina, USA
  • Died: June 26, 2003 in Edgefield, South Carolina, USA
  • Known For: Led the Dixiecrat revolt of 1948 and embodied the realignment of the two major political parties around the issue of race in America.

Sources

  • Walz, Jay. "Carolinian Sets Talking Record." New York Times, 30 August 1957, p. 1.
  • Hulse, Carl. "Lott Apologizes Again on Words About '48 Race." New York Times, 12 December 2002, p 1.
  • Clymer, Adam. "Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100." New York Times, 27 June 2003.
  • Janofsky, Michael. "Thurmond Kin Acknowledge Black Daughter." New York Times, 16 December 2003.
  • "James Strom Thurmond." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 15, Gale, 2004, pp. 214-215. Gale Virtual Reference Library.