The State of Strom Thurmond's America

By Domenick AmmiratiFebruary 12, 2013

    The State of Strom Thurmond's America

    A FEW MONTHS AGO, those on the American Left exhaled when Barack Obama was reelected President; they seemed to experience less joy than relief. Those on the Right, however, were plunged into agony. Tonight, as they tough out another State of the Union address by their Democratic nemesis, prick up your ears to the boom mics in the House: the grinding of teeth should be audible.

    It’s been a rough run for the GOP in recent years. By 2008 George W. Bush was toxic. Next in line was John McCain, whom they never quite trusted but did their best to rally behind. Then came Mitt Romney, which was, clearly, no love affair. The resulting fractious debate inside the Republican Party — including recent news that Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is forming a super PAC called “Conservative Victory Project” to quash the Tea Party insurgency inside the GOP — has laid bare the fissures in the coalition the Republicans have successfully held together for so long. Its alliances seem under pressure to a degree unprecedented in recent times, since the Southern strategy began the great migration of that region’s white conservatives into the party.

    South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond was famously the bellwether of this shift. He broke with the Democrats in 1948 to mount a quixotic run for president on a segregationist platform against his party’s incumbent, Harry Truman, because of Truman’s advocacy for civil rights legislation. But Thurmond was more than a mere racist. As historian Joseph Crespino argues in Strom Thurmond’s America, Thurmond incarnated the confluence of business interests, anticommunism, and states rights that motivated the Republican Party in the post-civil rights era, epitomized by Reagan and carrying through, perhaps in a new state of uncertainty, the present day.

    Thurmond’s remarkable longevity — born 1902, died 2003 — allows Crespino to draw together in one narrative a century of evolution in American society and politics. Thurmond’s father was the personal lawyer of the virulently racist politician “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman; after Thurmond’s death, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the African-American daughter Thurmond never acknowledged (and who herself died just this month), witnessed the reinscription of a statue of her father on the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol to reflect the truth. The words “Father of Four” were changed to “Father of Five.” Crespino offers an illuminating, detailed account of Thurmond’s early years in South Carolina as well the period in which he occupied a central yet underacknowledged role in American politics. The book shows how political exigencies, rash acts, and deeply held beliefs commingle, with tactics and impulses becoming strategy and necessity before ultimately reifying into history.


    Domenick Ammirati: Why did you choose Strom Thurmond as a subject?

    Joseph Crespino: Thurmond fits so uneasily into the kinds of stories we tell about modern conservatism. Many people on the Left want to reduce the history of conservatism’s rise to racism and the Southern strategy — and Strom Thurmond is central in that narrative. Yet as important as Thurmond’s racism was, we need to understand how it fit in with a number of other important right-wing priorities, not just for him and his fellow Southerners but for countless conservative white Americans throughout the country in these years.

    DA: And yet despite that central place in conservative history, Thurmond began his career as a progressive on race, labor, and other issues.

    JC: After the New Deal, support for big government, extending both to infrastructure projects and pro-worker legislation, was high. When Thurmond first entered politics, in the South Carolina State Senate, he was an ardent supporter of public works as well as increased public schooling. When he was elected South Carolina’s governor in 1946, his inaugural address was packed with progressive-sounding positions — eliminating the poll tax, establishing a state minimum wage, air-conditioning for textile plants.

    DA: This was revelatory to me in reading the book — that hostility to unions and business regulation was not indigenously Southern, as it’s come to seem, but the result of direct action by business leaders and politicians, Thurmond included.

    JC: The labor vote was formidable in South Carolina politics from the 1930s into the 1960s; it was a big factor in Thurmond’s failure the first time he ran for Senate in 1950, when he lost the state’s more industrialized upstate handily. Antilabor campaigns and the internationalization of the textile industry essentially eradicated that vote.

    DA: Perhaps uncoincidentally, it was in the 1950s that Thurmond began forging close relationships with key business leaders in South Carolina like Roger Milliken, a textile magnate and eventual billionaire, and Charles Daniel, whose construction business would become one of the largest in the world. These men would be critical in Thurmond’s eventual embrace of free enterprise, antilabor politics.

    JC: Millikin in particular was a significant player in postwar conservatism. He was the most important financial backer of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, and he played a similar role in the development of the South Carolina Republican Party — it earned him the nickname “Daddy Warbucks” back home.

    DA: Millikin was also, you point out in the book, a key funder of the John Birch Society, which was founded in December 1958. Only a couple of years later, Thurmond established himself as a nationally credible anticommunist through his heavy involvement in congressional hearings over whether the Kennedy administration was “muzzling” American servicemen from speaking out against communism. Here we have incarnated the ties between the anticommunist Right and the probusiness Right — which of course were not merely coalition partners. The relationship had tangible economic benefits. 

    JC: Thurmond always quoted Charles Daniel as saying that the building of the Savannah River Site — the massive federal defense complex begun in 1950 where the first hydrogen bombs were built — was the beginning of the industrial revolution in South Carolina. It overstated the point, but it spoke to how influential defense spending was in transforming the industrial profile of the South, when we usually think of it as a factor in the growth in economic power and population of places like California.

    DA: It’s hard to believe that it was only two years after the “progressive” gubernatorial inauguration speech you mentioned, where Thurmond advocated eliminating the poll tax and improving education for black South Carolinians, that he made himself famous by running for President as a segregationist. When he lost the 1948 campaign, he was in a precarious position. He had alienated the Democratic Party establishment, including many in his own home state, and the Republican Party was still a nonentity in South Carolina.

    JC: The defeat left him in a bind. He wanted to distance himself from the reactionaries on racial issues, and in fact he had always been a relative moderate. But he understood, before many others realized it, that there was no way to stay within the Democratic Party — a break was inevitable. He couldn’t abandon the States’ Righters even if he wanted to. They were now his political base.

    DA: If he wanted to survive politically, then his only option was to double down as a champion of the white race — you use the phrase “the South’s last Confederate.” This led him to his other most renowned, or notorious, act on the national political stage, his record filibuster in 1957 against another civil rights bill.

    JC: The filibuster was definitely a way to present himself as the segregated South’s fiercest defender. Here his obsession with good health and physical prowess took on racialized aspects. Thurmond was super macho. It’s one of the most widely reported aspects of his personality — the feats of strength and endurance he performed as a young man, the barbells he kept in his office, performing push-ups for reporters. And it was engrained belief that white men in the South were supposed to be the protectors of Southern women, which of course was deeply racially skewed.

    DA: And yet Thurmond remained a Democrat at this point; he didn’t switch parties until 1964, the year of the Goldwater run, which catalyzed the ascendancy of what’s come to be known as Sunbelt conservatism. What does that term denote exactly?

    JC: The concept actually originated with an advisor to Nixon in the late 1960s and has typically been associated with figures like Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. In the years since, it’s been adopted by historians to frame the longer roots of conservative politics, tying them back to issues of political economy that were transforming the South and the West in the post–World War II years. 

    DA: And what were those issues? 

    JC: The short version is that Cold War spending sent jobs away from the industrial Northeast toward the South and West where there were fewer protections for labor and lower taxes, creating a new white-collar population in these regions. At the same time, a large section of the population that was poor and black was migrating out of the region.

    Thurmond is usually seen as an archetype of archaic Jim Crow conservatives, for whom segregation was the only issue. In my book I try to show that in fact he was a key player well in the mainstream of the conservative movement (which includes Sunbelt conservatism) on issues like anticommunism, probusiness and antilabor stances, strong national defense, states rights, and conservative religious beliefs.

    DA: That last part of the conservative coalition you mention, the evangelical movement, seems muted in Thurmond’s political portfolio. Today we see evangelicals as part of the bedrock of the Republican Party, but Thurmond predated their rise, and in the book (despite cameos by Pat Robertson and Bob Jones) you never emphasize religion in Thurmond’s thought and decision making.

    JC: I don’t emphasize Thurmond’s personal religiosity because there was very little of it that I found in the historical record. He was a churchgoing Baptist his entire life, and he would occasionally lead Bible studies among collections of his fellow senators, but he did not wear his religion on his sleeve quite in the same way that it has become customary to do today among politicians. Thurmond was a great defender of evangelical interests in American politics, beginning with the original Supreme Court decisions outlawing school prayer in the early 1960s, and he played a critical role in that decade and in the 1970s in mobilizing the Religious Right. He was an important ally for them throughout those decades.

    Yet by the 1980s, when the Religious Right really establishes itself as a fixture in Republican politics, I think Thurmond had a sense that you shouldn’t put the cart before the horse — he wasn’t going to let preachers dictate politics to him. You see that during the hearings he chaired for Sandra Day O’Conner’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The religious Right wanted to hold her feet to the fire on abortion, but Thurmond defended her and was instrumental in pushing her nomination through.

    AD: It’s interesting you mention the Bible study — it’s a humanizing note, and even though your book is thoroughly detailed, it was hard for me to get a sense of Thurmond as a person. There’s no mention of things like favorite books, movies, TV shows, music, or even who he had close personal relationships with beyond his advisors.

    JC: I couldn’t find any record of things like books and movies. He had no hobbies or outside interests really — he was an utter workaholic. He had work friends but nobody outside politics.

    AD: But despite that kind of devotion, in reading your book I see more missteps than brilliance. He kept making critical overreaches that marginalized him or made him seem ridiculous — the Presidential run, the filibuster, vamping for photographers that ended up with a picture of him standing on his head in Life magazine. I never get the sense that Thurmond was an especially shrewd politician.

    JC: Shrewd he certainly was in sizing up his political competition in the mid-1950s, or in switching parties in 1964, presenting it as a matter of principle when really it was cold political calculation. I think he was very shrewd throughout his career, and he was dogged. That as much as anything was the key to his success — his tirelessness in assessing his political fortunes and repositioning himself as the needs of the day dictated.

    AD: Karl Rove called Romney’s loss “the death rattle of the establishment GOP.” How does this fit into the lineage of Old Right/establishment vs. New Right/Sunbelt conservativism that you track as a historian?

    JC: First, it’s important to note that “New Right” and “Sunbelt conservative” are not synonymous. “The New Right” was a term that conservatives themselves used in the 1970s in the wake of the Nixon scandals to rebrand.

    There have been a lot of different establishment GOPs that conservative elements have positioned themselves against over the years. In the 1950s it was the Eisenhower modern Republicans; in the 1960s it was the moderate/liberal establishment of Rockefellers and Javits; in the 1970s it was Nixon and his successor, Ford. I take Rove’s comment as postelection blather. We’ll actually have to wait to see what the implications of the election are for the Republican Party.


    LARB Contributor

    Domenick Ammirati’s critical writing has appeared in publications including ArtforumBookforumDot Dot Dot, and Modern Painters, where he served as senior editor. Last fall he wrote for Dis magazine about attending the inaugural Frieze New York art fair on Ambien. He is currently at work on a collection of writings, an essay about intransitive painting, and a novel.



    LARB Staff Recommendations

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!