Strom Thurmond, born in 1902, is a deeply controversial character, a long time supporter of segregation on the basis of states' rights, and one of the longest serving members in the US Senate, surpassed only by Senator Byrd. People did not know how deeply his hypocrisy in respect to race ran until after his death in 2003, when his mixed race, illegitimate daughter, Bessie May Washington-Williams, revealed that she was in fact Thurmond’s daughter.
Out of respect for her father, Washington-Williams had never sought to go public with this information during Thurmond’s lifetime, and she did receive financial support from him. However, he stood for the very things, like segregation and Jim Crow laws, that were designed to oppress and denigrate the African American race. He did later support desegregation in the South in the 1970s, but this retraction came a bit late, when Washington-Williams was already in her mid-40s.
The early career of Strom Thurmond included his attendance at Clemson College, and his admittance to the South Carolina Bar in 1930. He served as a county attorney, and became active in the military, signing up in 1924 as a reservist. A brief stint in the South Carolina Senate was followed by Thurmond’s election as a judge. During World War II, he actively served in the US military receiving multiple decorations, including the Purple Heart. Returning home as a decorated veteran increased his popularity in his home state. South Carolina elected him governor in 1946, where he increasingly advocated the right of his state to maintain segregation.
Strom Thurmond made a single bid for president, running on a third party ticket in 1948. This bid was unsuccessful, and in a 1950 run for US Senator he was also defeated. 1954 brought more luck to the would-be senator, and he remains the only senator ever to have been elected by write-ins on ballots. As politics shifted, and the Democratic Party became more associated with liberal politics and civil rights, Strom Thurmond shifted his allegiance too, becoming a Republican in 1964. He served in the Senate for slightly more than 41 years, finally ending his political career in 2002, at the age of 100.
The senate career of Strom Thurmond does represent changes in attitudes as he aged. He did hire black staff members, and became among the first of the Southern Senators to fully back integration of races in the 1970s. He did not, however, spend much time apologizing for his former position, but he did vote on some important Civil Rights or related issues, such as supporting the bid to make Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday, and extending the Voting Rights Act, which had outlawed applying unfair standards to black voters by requiring they pass a literacy test. Some critics suggest that younger staff members suggested he change his politics in order to remain a power in the US government. It is hard to gauge the sincerity of his conversion.
For many, Strom Thurmond is viewed as a product of the age and climate in which he was raised. However, as the nation moved toward policies of greater acceptance, he remained steadfast in his discrimination. Furthermore, to praise the man today is certain to get people into trouble. At the celebration of Thurmond’s 100th birthday, Senator Trent Lott praised Thurmond’s attempt to gain the presidency. Lott was so criticized for praising the tactics of a noted separatist that he was forced to resign from his post as Senate Minority Leader.