Perhaps the two most notable segregationists to switch parties were Strom Thurmond (1902-2003) and Jesse Helms (1921-2008). Yet, both men took different tactics on how to address social change and managed to have successful political careers, both retiring from the Senate in 2003.
Senator Thurmond of South Carolina had multiple reputations: as governor he had actively opposed lynchings and worked to further education for blacks but he had also run for president on the staunchly segregationist Dixiecrat ticket and had conducted a 24-hour one-man filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a record that stands to this day. His switch from Democrat to Republican in 1964 had a tremendous symbolic impact on black views of the Party of Lincoln. Perhaps this was also a survival move on Thurmond’s part, as his likelihood of surviving a Democratic primary once blacks were able to vote was dubious. This was an example among many as to how adaptable Thurmond was as a politician. Another example was his hiring of a black staffer in 1971, the first Southern senator to do so, as was his reversal on opposition to the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and his vote for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday in 1983. Thurmond’s overall conservatism remained consistent until his retirement in 2003, with adjustments made as necessary based on the composition of the electorate.
Unlike his colleague Strom Thurmond, who had tempered his voting record on racial issues, Jesse Helms decided to remain hardcore. A former segregationist radio host, he had switched to the GOP in 1970 and was elected to the Senate in 1972. With exceedingly few exceptions, Helms voted staunchly conservative and like Thurmond in the 1960s, he became an icon for the right in the 1980s and 1990s. He consistently opposed civil rights proposals and unlike most opponents of the MLK holiday, he took it upon himself to attack King’s character. This guaranteed that his elections would always be close. He also attracted controversy for his “white hands” campaign ad in 1990, which condemned affirmative action and was considered by liberals to be racist. He was also one of only three senators to vote against the 1988 Fair Housing Act and one of only five to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1991. Thurmond had voted for both.
Thurmond was a pragmatist who adapted to the racial makeup of the electorate while Helms was a principled absolutist who although kept quiet on his segregationist past, never made a clear break from it, and denied that he was a racist in his autobiography. Yet, both men managed to have long, undefeated careers in the Senate and both managed to be highly influential. Thurmond was instrumental to Nixon winning South Carolina in the 1968 presidential election and Helms made his mark as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s.
Clymer, A. (27 June 2003). Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100”. The New York Times.
Holmes, S.A. (5 July 2008). “Jesse Helms Dies At 86; Conservative Force in the Senate”. The New York Times.
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