Strom Thurmond, who served in the United States Senate for a record 46 years, dies on this day in 2003. Thurmond’s long and controversial political career had ended with his retirement one year earlier.
Thurmond was born on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina, where he also died. He graduated from what is now Clemson University in 1923 with a degree in horticulture and became a teacher and coach, and, later, a superintendent of schools. While working in education, he studied law at night, and passed the bar in 1930. He worked as an attorney and, eventually, a judge, before serving in WWII, where he participated in the D-Day beach-storming at Normandy with the Army’s 82nd Airborne division.
Thurmond’s political career began in 1946 when he became governor of South Carolina, a position he held for one term. As governor, as well as in the early part of his Congressional career, he was famously pro-segregation, even saying in a 1948 speech, “I want to 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 Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.” It was also in 1948 that Thurmond made his one and only run for the presidency, as the candidate of the Dixiecrat party, in protest of Harry Truman’s nomination by the Democratic Party, of which he was a member. He was easily defeated, but did win the states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana, and their combined 39 electoral votes.
In 1954, Thurmond ran for the United States Senate as a Democrat on a pro-segregation platform and became the only candidate ever elected to the Senate by a write-in vote. Three years into this first term, he notoriously staged a record-breaking one-man filibuster to defeat a civil rights bill that lasted more than 24 hours. Although it is unknown whether his personal beliefs regarding racial equality ever changed, his political behavior became more moderate in the 1970s, perhaps as part of an effort to extend his political career in changing times. This change of heart, whether genuine or not, was exemplified by his endorsement of a renewal of the Voting Rights Act in 1982 and his vote in favor of creating the Martin Luther King, Jr. federal holiday in 1983.
Throughout his career Thurmond was by any account a divisive force in American politics. His critics thought him to be an unabashed racist and condemned his alleged habit of skirt-chasing. Thurmond was married twice, the second time when he was 66 years old to a 22-year-old former Miss South Carolina, but also had a reputation for making frequent advances on a wide variety of women who crossed his path. His fans, however, seemed amused by his reputation as a “rascal” and admired his feistiness and personal discipline–Thurmond never smoked or drank coffee and only rarely indulged in alcohol–as well as his personal strength. Even in his 90s when his health began to fail, Thurmond refused to use a wheelchair or hearing aid in public. He was well known for personally helping out his constituents on a regular basis.
Thurmond retired from the Senate in 2002 and died about a year later in his South Carolina home. In December 2003, Essie Mae Washington-Williams announced that she was his illegitimate daughter, born to Thurmond and her mother Carrie Butler, a black maid who had worked in his family’s home. Thurmond was 22 when she was born; Butler was only 16. Although he never publicly acknowledged her while he was alive, a representative for his family did confirm Washington-Williams’ statement and it was reported that the two had a relatively close relationship.
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