Strom Thurmond Was Better Than You Think

Author’s note: my original plan was to write about American fascism advocate Lawrence Dennis, but I found two goldmines of resources for him and I want to fully capitalize on them for the post I will be writing on him: his book on the subject, The Coming American Fascism, and a 1967 interview. I would be most dismayed to have found such resources and not used them to the full extent I can. On to today’s post.

When people think of Strom Thurmond (1902-2003), if they care to, they think of him as a segregationist who ran for president on the Dixiecrat platform in 1948, engaged in a solo filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for a record of 24 hours that stands to this day, and his switch to the Republican Party in 1964. All this is true, however, the legacy of him is substantially more nuanced and on the state level reflects a degree of racial moderation and reform that was far from universal among Southern politicians of his time.

Thurmond had his first encounter with politics at the age of six. Since his father, James William, had significant political connections, he got to meet and shake hands with Ben Tillman. Tillman was the foremost politician of the state in his time, and had led a populistic and white supremacist movement in the state which got him to the Senate. After earning a bachelor of science at Clemson, Thurmond’s first foray into public service came in 1929 with his appointment as Edgefield County’s superintendent of education. During this time, he became a lawyer by “reading law”, and in 1930 he was admitted to the state bar, serving as Edgefield’s town and county attorney for eight years. Thurmond’s rise continued with his election in 1938 to be a state circuit judge.

In 1942, Thurmond resigned his judgeship to serve in World War II, and he served with distinction, rising through the ranks to lieutenant colonel. He earned eighteen decorations, medals, and awards for his war heroism. Thurmond’s service brought up his profile to run for governor. He ran a reform campaign, promising to counter the powers that were in the state from Barnwell, led by House Speaker Solomon Blatt. Thurmond prevailed and had promoted a path of reform and modernization for the state. He increased funding for black schools, passed pro-business policies to get more to move to South Carolina, and sought to eliminate geniunely

Thurmond and the Lynching of Willie Earle

In 1947, a 24-year old black man named Willie Earle was accused of robbing and murdering Thomas Watson Brown, a white taxi driver and was arrested. On February 16th, a mob of taxi drivers took Earle from the jail, gave him a brutal beating, and then one of them shot him in the face with a shotgun. Governor Thurmond launched a full-scale investigation and got members of the mob indicted. Although the mob members were acquitted, the New York Times praised Governor Thurmond for his efforts and wrote “There has been a victory for law, even though Willie Earle’s slayers will not be punished for what they did. A precedent has been set. Members of lynching mobs may now know that they do not bask in universal approval, even in their own disgraced communities, and they may begin to fear that someday, on sufficient evidence with sufficient courage, a Southern lynching case jury will convict” (Bass & Poole, 116-117). This was the last racially motivated lynching in South Carolina, and this was reinforced in 1950 after Thurmond signed a law drafted by fellow future Senator Fritz Hollings which prescribed the death penalty for lynching.

Thurmond for President: The Dixiecrat Campaign of 1948

The presidency of Harry S. Truman got Democrats asking questions. Namely, who they were and what direction would they go. The Roosevelt coalition had elements in it that were simply not sustainable in the long term in the same party. It was both the party of Northern blacks and the party of segregationists. This was an untenable arrangement in the long term. On July 26, 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, mandating the desegregation of the U.S. Army. He also endorsed a civil rights platform that included anti-lynching legislation, a poll tax ban, and a permanent Fair Employment Practices Committee. These proposals were anathema to the Southern Democrats of the day, and some Southerners broke from the Democratic Party by endorsing the State’s Rights Democratic Party (Dixiecrat). They nominated Strom Thurmond for president and Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright for vice president. No Dixiecrat labored under the delusion that the Thurmond/Wright ticket would win. They thought they could upset the presidency for Dewey or at best, throw the election to the House of Representatives, where they could negotiate a more palatable candidate. They sought to prove that the Democrats could not function without them. The most famous quote of Thurmond’s from the campaign was this:

“I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches” (PotusGeeks).

Writer and wit H.L. Mencken, interestingly enough, had primarily positive things to say about Thurmond. He regarded him as “the best of all the candidates” but lamented that “all the worst morons in the South are for him” (TIME). He would interview him during the campaign, which would be the last he would cover. The Dixiecrat hope was for naught: although Thurmond won four states and 39 electoral votes, President Truman found more danger from dissent from the left in the party than the right; Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party had broken off enough of the Democratic vote for Thomas E. Dewey to win New York, which at the time was worth 47 electoral votes. Given Thurmond’s lack of the commitment to the State’s Rights Democratic Party after the 1948 election, he may have accepted the nomination to raise his profile for a Senate race in 1950, a primary which he lost. That year, he succeeded in winning crucial reforms for how the state voted: there would finally be a secret ballot, it became a crime to intimidate voters, and dispense with asking voters if they wanted a “Democratic” or “Republican” ballot. Thurmond had also pushed for a ban of the poll tax, which the voters approved in 1950 and the legislature ratified the repeal the following year. This limited coercion in voting and opened the door to more independent voting in South Carolina, which historically had produced astronomical majorities for Democrats. The results were dramatic: in 1948, the state had voted 71.97% for Thurmond and 24.14% for Truman, but in 1952, the state voted 50.7% for Democrat Adlai Stevenson and 49.3% for Republican Dwight Eisenhower, with an estimated 20,000 blacks having cast a ballot from the state.

Joining the Senate

In 1954, Senator Burnet R. Maybank died, and the Democrats nominated Edgar A. Brown without having a primary. Strom Thurmond ran a write-in campaign for the Senate in response, and his was the first ever write-in campaign to win a Senate race and one of the few write-in campaigns to succeed in American history. However, he had promised if elected to resign in 1956 to force a primary. Thurmond won this campaign as well.

Like most other Southern senators, and like all politicians from South Carolina he signed the Southern Manifesto, which was a statement of opposition to Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and desegregation. Thurmond had co-written the first draft. His opposition to Brown would motivate his votes against Eisenhower Supreme Court picks John Marshall Harlan II and Potter Stewart, as he correctly believed they would vote for desegregation. Thurmond would likewise vote against Thurgood Marshall in 1967. In 1957, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.) cut a deal with the Southern Democratic bloc not to launch a coordinated filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 in exchange for weakening the bill. Thurmond, however, launched a solo filibuster that lasted for 24 hours and 18 minutes, a record that stands to this day. He likewise proved a staunch opponent of statehood for Alaska and Hawaii. A major motivation for opposition from him and other Southern senators was that both states were expected to (and did) elect two pro-civil rights senators. Never a liberal as a senator, Thurmond grew more and more conservative. During the 87th Congress, he got two zeroes from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action and a 100% from the conservative Americans for Constitutional Action. The only Democrats who achieved the latter feat in the 87th Congress were Senator Willis Robertson (D-Va.), and Representatives Joe Waggonner (D-La.), and John Bell Williams (D-Miss.).

In 1964, not long after Senator Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Thurmond, who had participated in the group filibuster against the bill, switched to Republican and campaigned for Goldwater. Although he cited multiple reasons for this switch, including the increasing liberalism of the Democratic Party and foreign policy, civil rights without question was a part of the reasoning. Thurmond proved as staunch a foe of the Great Society as he was Kennedy’s New Frontier and was a Vietnam War hawk.

The Great Symbolic Switch: 1964

In 1964, Senator Thurmond participated in the coordinated filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proposed several amendments to weaken the bill. Not long after Senator and Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater voted against the bill, Thurmond switched to the Republican Party and campaigned for him. He had always been one of the most conservative Democrats and this switch would have likely come regardless at some point in the future, the timing of the switch carried great symbolic meaning for blacks…that the Lincoln mantle of the Republican Party had transferred to the Democratic Party. That year, South Carolina, for the first time since Reconstruction, voted for the Republican candidate for president.

A New Thurmond for a New South

In 1970, Thurmond’s protege, Congressman Albert W. Watson, a former Democrat who had been the only Republican to vote against a bill penalizing racial discrimination in federal jury selection, ran for governor and engaged in racially heated rhetoric. The Democrats nominated moderate John C. West, and he won the election given crossover vote from some suburban Republicans who were uncomfortable with Watson’s rhetoric. A notable incident was on March 3, 1970, when a mob of two hundred whites assaulted three school buses full of black children (no one was injured) nine days after a speech Watson delivered before a pro-segregation rally in Darlington County which he said, “use every means at your disposal to defend” the community against a court order desegregating schools (The New York Times, 1994). The message was quite clear for South Carolina: the days of race baiting as a winning strategy were over. Thurmond in the next year was the first Southern senator to hire a black legislative assistant in Thomas Moss, and he used his office to obtain pork projects that black voters valued. This served to lessen black opposition to him.

By the late 1970s, Thurmond’s change on civil rights was complete. He now supported extensions of the Civil Rights Commission and in 1978 he even backed giving Washington D.C. full representation in Congress. In 1982, Thurmond voted for extending the Voting Rights Act of 1965 for twenty-five years, the first time he had supported extending that law. The following year, he voted for the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. Although he had once been an outlier on civil rights within the Republican Party for his opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and especially the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he was now voting in a manner not distinguishable from many conservative Republicans and was no longer the most oppositional. The most oppositional was now North Carolina’s Jesse Helms. While Thurmond sided with Ronald Reagan in his veto of the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988 and with George H.W. Bush in his veto of the Civil Rights Act of 1990, he joined most of the Senate in support of strengthening fair housing laws in 1988 as well as in voting for the compromise Civil Rights Act of 1991.

Thurmond and Nixon

The time in which Thurmond could be argued to be at the peak of his power was during the Nixon Administration. He had helped rally Southern support for him in 1968, and the power of his influence was evidenced by the fact that South Carolina was the only Deep South state to vote for Nixon rather than Wallace. Thurmond influenced the Nixon Administration’s pick of South Carolina Judge Clement Haynsworth for the Supreme Court, but his nomination was felled by a coalition of civil rights and labor groups as well as concerns over ethics. He also urged the Nixon Administration to back making the Voting Rights Act of 1965 apply nationwide and wanted to end Section 5, the preclearance section of the law. The Nixon Administration backed such a substitute, but Congress rejected it in favor of a five-year extension that gave eighteen year olds the vote. The latter portion would be struck down as unconstitutional, necessitating a constitutional amendment. However, Nixon didn’t always go with Thurmond. He supported the Philadelphia Plan in 1969 and a busing compromise in 1970, both of which Thurmond opposed. Thurmond was a strong supporter of Nixon Administration policies when Nixon went conservative, such as on the prosecution of the Vietnam War, on general opposition to busing, and on opposition to raising the minimum wage.

Thurmond in the 1980 Election

In 1979, Senator Thurmond endorsed former Secretary of the Treasury and Texas Governor John B. Connally for president. Connally, like Thurmond, had switched from Democrat to Republican. Despite raising the most money, he was unable to overcome the enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan, and after he lost the South Carolina primary by 25 points, he dropped out. With the election of Ronald Reagan and a Republican Senate in 1980, Thurmond became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, serving from 1981 to 1987. In this position, he staunchly endorsed Sandra Day O’Connor as the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Thurmond also presided over the vetting and considerations of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Antonin Scalia. He would also vote for Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991.

Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee

With the victory of the Republicans in the 1994 midterms, Thurmond became chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. In this position, he backed increases in the defense budget, praising President Clinton’s proposal to raise defense funds by $25 billion (UPI Archives). Although he could have theoretically continued as chairman, by 1997 he decided he would turn over the chairmanship to his fellow Southern Republican in the next Congress, John Warner of Virginia.

Death and Revelation

Thurmond retired in 2003 at the age of 100, dying six months after leaving office. After his passing, Essie Mae Washington-Williams (1925-2013) revealed that she was his daughter, being the child produced from a tryst with the Thurmond family’s black maid. Thurmond had supported her financially, including her college education, and the two would meet and talk on the phone from time to time.


Albert Watson, 72, Lawmaker; Opposed Integration of Schools. The New York Times.

Retrieved from

Bass, J. & Poole, W.S. (2012). The Palmetto State: the making of modern South Carolina. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.

Martin, M. (2019, August 21). Strom Thurmond, the “Dixiecrats,” and Southern Identity. Abbeville Institute Press.

Retrieved from

Political Notes: The Pot Boils, Oct. 4, 1948. TIME.

Retrieved from,33009,799228,00.html

The Also Rans: Strom Thurmond. (2013). PotusGeeks.

Retrieved from

Thurmond Image Seen As Changing. (1971, October 17). The New York Times.

Retrieved from

Thurmond praises, criticizes Clinton. (1994, December 1). UPI Archives.

Retrieved from

2 thoughts on “Strom Thurmond Was Better Than You Think

  1. Example Of A Successful Party Switcher With National Implications… Served EVERY Which Way Forever! Not Necessarily A Fiscal Conservative…Supported Lots Of Defense Spending, Rural Electrification, & Plenty Of Pork. Tried To Protect Small Town Agriculture & Textile Mills. With Some Success. Critical IN 1968 Election. Mixed Results. Never Really A Reaganite. As You Noted, Different From Jesse Helms. Uncle Jesse WAS Influenced By Jim Allen From Alabama. Sadly, Jim Didn’t Make IT To The 1980s. Would Have Been Interesting. Christmas Wishes From Dave

  2. Somewhere IN The Almanac Of American Politics, Michael Barone Has An Extensive Discussion Of How HIS Life & Career Linked Many Generations IN South Carolina And American History. Not Certain Which Edition
    Fascinating Reading, Though
    Dave Is IN TEXAS.

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