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Strom Thurmond: An American Hero By: Joseph J. Sabia
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, June 30, 2003


“Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100.”  That is how the New York Times reported the passing of American hero J. Strom Thurmond.  With this outrageous headline, we get a small taste of what happens when the Left is permitted to write our history.

Any honest historian knows that Strom Thurmond was not a segregationist for the last 30 years of his life.  Thurmond changed his race-based views and proudly served the people of South Carolina and the Republican Party as a colorblind Senator.  Still, the leftist press will never tell the whole story on his political life.  Former Georgia Governor George Wallace got the royal treatment from the Left for abandoning his racist past.  Why not Thurmond?  Thurmond got the shaft because he refused to apologize for his colorblind positions, refused to abandon his conservative politics, and refused to stop his assault on Soviet Communism as head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Hence, while the press gave Wallace a political resurrection, Thurmond was demonized.

Thurmond spent his lifetime in public service—either as a representative of the people or as a war hero.  He began his public service in 1933, serving first in the South Carolina Senate and later as a judge in the Eleventh Circuit.  When the United States declared war on Germany and Japan in 1941, he left his judgeship to serve his country in the Army.  Lt. Colonel Thurmond fought in both the European and Pacific theatres, participating in the invasion of Normandy. For his valor, he was awarded five battle stars and 18 decorations, which included the Belgian Order of the Crown, the French Croix de Guerre and a Bronze Star.

At the close of the war, Thurmond returned to his home and judgeship in South Carolina.  He successfully ran for governor in 1946.

One of Thurmond’s most controversial programs as a judge was a statewide reading program for black kids.  Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) described this on the floor of the Senate last week:

“In 1947 or 1948, [there is] a lead editorial in the New York Times.  The title of the editorial, if memory serves me correct, was something like ‘The Hope of the South.’  It was about Strom Thurmond.  The New York Times, the liberal New York Times in the late ‘40s—must have been ’47, before the Dixiecrat event and him walking out [of the Democratic convention]—wrote about this guy Strom Thurmond who was a public official in South Carolina who got himself in trouble and lost a primary because he was too empathetic to African Americans.  When he was a presiding judge, he started an effort statewide in South Carolina that tried to get better textbooks and materials into black schools.  And he tutored young blacks and set up an organization to tutor and teach young blacks how to read.  Strom Thurmond.  Strom Thurmond.”

Thurmond’s support for the reading program contributed to U.S. Sen. Olin Johnston’s victory over him in a senatorial primary.  According to Senator Biden, Thurmond drew the wrong lesson from this campaign and hardened in his backing of segregation. His support for legal segregation was dramatically demonstrated in his 1948 run for the presidency under the States’ Rights Party platform and in his 1957 filibuster of the Civil Rights Act.  Still, Senator Biden argued, “I don’t believe he was a racist.”

From the mid-1970s through 2001, Senator Thurmond’s public record on race changed.  He became the first Southern senator to hire a black staffer; he supported the extension of the Voting Rights Act; he voted for the creation of a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr.; and he endorsed colorblind government contract awards.

What accounted for this change?  Most leftists contend that it was pure opportunism—Thurmond’s constituents changed their views on race so he changed his voting record so as to ensure re-election. (Incidentally, why couldn’t just the opposite be true?  That is, maybe Thurmond was an integrationist and adopted segregationist policies out of political opportunism.  It makes just as much sense as the Left’s view and simply makes a different assumption about the true nature of Thurmond’s heart.)

The most likely explanation for Senator Thurmond’s change of heart is that is was genuine.  Senator Biden shares this view:

“I choose to remember Strom Thurmond in his last 15 years as Senator [rather] than I choose to remember him when he started his career.  And I don’t choose that just as a matter of convenience.  I choose that because I believe men and women can grow...I believe Strom Thurmond meant it when he hired so many African Americans, signed onto the extension of the Voting Rights Act, and voted for the Martin Luther King holiday.  I choose to believe that he meant it, because I find it hard to believe that the so many decent, generous, and personal acts that he did for me did not come from a man who was basically a decent, good man.  And the later part of his career reflects that.  So I choose it not just because I’m an optimist.  I choose it not just because I want to believe it.  I choose it not just because I believe that there is a chemistry that happens in this body.  I choose it because I believe basically in the goodness of human nature and it will out.  And I believe it did in Strom.”

Strom Thurmond did change.  And he was a hero for it.  He abandoned racism, but never became afflicted with “white guilt syndrome,” a disease that gripped Trent Lott during his apologetic appearance on Black Entertainment Television.  Thurmond never sought redemption in the arms of the new leftist Civil Rights movement.  He never sought absolution from Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Sheila Jackson-Lee, or Maxine Waters.  He never supported racial preferences nor did he bow at the altar of multiculturalism.  Strom Thurmond simply realized that his past support for segregation was wrong, moved forward with his life, and did the right thing.  That takes courage.  And courage, more than anything else, is what we should remember when we hear the name Strom Thurmond.


Joseph J. Sabia is a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Cornell University.


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