The Carolinian's Legacy
- James Tuten
- July 16, 2003
- Providence Journal
I voted for Strom Thurmond. My parents voted for him, as did my grandparents and probably my great-grandparents. Some of them were yellow - dog Democrats others moved to the G.O.P. and a few remain staunchly independent, but we all have Strom in common.
I have always looked at Strom's presence in South Carolina politics as part of our birthright - a kind of political patrimony. The hallmark of his political career is that Strom destroyed the single-party South because he hoped to save its purpose. An old slogan down South had "American by birth - Southern by the grace of God" but I suppose that Strom was our reward and punishment for being Carolinians. Voting for him connected me to my ancestors in ways impossible in the rest of the nation and voting against him was futile.
There are many criticisms one could make of Carolina voters and their former senior senator. David Bruck said in the New York Times "South Carolina is a state where most people don't second-guess their leaders, and don't expect much from them either." To outlanders it must seem strange. Why, they wonder, did you keep electing that old segregationist Dixiecrat? I used to jokingly reply that we wanted poor Fritz Hollings to be the oldest and longest-serving junior senator in history.
Strom has been good for a sure laugh from my students. So I feel that I owe him some thought for using him as fodder in college history classes if nothing else.
This question deserves a serious answer. Like most South Carolinians I had encounters with the senator. I shook his hand at Palmetto Boys State after he gave his annual address. In no way was I singled out: he shook hands with every single "future leader" there, hundreds of us. And he did that year after year.
I saw him ride in the Watermelon Festival parade in rural Hampton County on the back of a classic convertible, year after year. Usually the car was red and Strom wore a wide brimmed hat. It would be hard to calculate how many hands he shook, or how many constituents saw him ride in similar parades in virtually every little town of the state. The Palmetto State isn't large, and Thurmond knew that over time you could appear in the flesh in front of an awful lot of voters during six years. Thurmond made sure voters knew him to be a real flesh and blood person who spoke like they did.
The other trick to his longevity was political patronage. My father often wondered aloud what number of South Carolinians owed their job, an uncle's position or some valued bit of pork spending to Strom. Alternatively and less charitably, some of my Northern friends thought Carolinians had merely developed a habit of voting for him which, like most habits, became an unbreakable vice.
I must admit that I have long enjoyed teaching students about Thurmond. I have probably managed to work him into every course I have ever taught. A friend of mine told me she taught the Dixiecrat Revolt to her class of college freshman in Georgia and one raised his hand to ask, "Professor, was that the father of the man in the senate now?" When she responded that it was the same man, the incredulous class nearly launched a second Dixiecrat revolt against her. Strom has been good for a sure laugh from my students. So I feel that I owe him some thought for using him as fodder in college history classes if nothing else.
As a historic figure the obvious comparison is to John C. Calhoun. Both Thurmond and Calhoun argued for State's Rights, and they both cynically used it as a cover to prevent changes in status for African-Americans, their greatest fear.
At best Calhoun is remembered for being a political theorist of keen intellect. At worst he did a great deal to position the South as a political group in opposition to Northern interests, which helped lead to secession.
Thurmond was an echo of Calhoun, and his great innovation was unthinkable before he did it - he joined the Republican Party in 1964 and began the end of the Solidly Democratic South. That beat the trail for the Republican Party, and reshaped national and regional politics into the form we have today. So the legacy of both Carolinians (as the row over Trent Lott reminded us) was to change the political course of the nation in the name of preserving white power.
James Tuten is assistant provost and assistant professor of history at Juniata College.