U.S. senator, governor. Thurmond was born in Edgefield on December 5, 1902, to John William Thurmond and Eleanor Gertrude Strom. His father was a community leader of some repute and notoriety (he killed a man in a fight in 1897, claiming self-defense). James Strom was the second of six children. His parents immediately dropped “James,” and from then on he was known as “Strom.”
Thurmond got an early taste for politics. The family home was a gathering place for the political elite, and Thurmond listened attentively to the lively discussions over Sunday dinner. When he was nine, he watched a gubernatorial debate. Entranced with the energy of the moment, he resolved that one day he would be governor. Thurmond earned a bachelor of science degree from Clemson College in 1923. His first job was teaching at the white school in McCormick. In 1928 he won his first political office as superintendent of the Edgefield County schools. Shortly after he started his work, he began studying law with his father. He passed the state bar in December 1930. Early the next year, he was appointed Edgefield’s town attorney and combined those duties with private law practice.
Thurmond won a seat in the state Senate in 1932, where he served until 1938. In his first term, he championed legislation to improve the public schools, which earned him a commendation from state teachers. His continuing efforts on behalf of education won him a seat on the Winthrop College Board of Trustees. Years later the college named a building after him.
In 1937 Thurmond ran for an open judicial seat against the better-known George B. Timmerman. The state legislature elected judges, and Thurmond brazenly asked House speaker Sol Blatt and Senator Edgar Brown, both pledged to Timmerman, to stay neutral. When the lawmakers met on January 13, 1938, Thurmond had corralled so many votes that Timmerman withdrew his name. The Anderson Independent called Thurmond’s victory “a political upset of major proportions, which stunned even those who usually feel that they know what is going to happen.”
Thurmond was reelected to a full judicial term in 1940 without challenge. He volunteered for the army in World War II, although he was old enough to avoid service. As a member of the 82d Airborne Division, he was wounded during the D-day landing in France when his glider crashed behind German lines. In the meantime at home, Thurmond had been reelected without opposition, and after he left the army he resumed his judicial duties.
Seven months after returning, on May 15, 1946, Thurmond resigned from the bench to run for governor. Thurmond campaigned unapologetically against the “Barnwell Ring,” the powerful group of legislators headed by Blatt and Brown, and promised to bring a new spirit to South Carolina governance. Thurmond ran first in the August primary and easily defeated James McLeod in the September runoff.
Inaugurated on January 21, 1947, Thurmond introduced a progressive agenda championing more money for education, including the impoverished black schools, and encouraging women to serve in government. He garnered positive national attention for dispatching a government prosecutor to Greenville to try the brutal Willie Earle lynching case. On November 7, 1947, he took time out to marry Jean Crouch, one of his secretaries and twenty-three years his junior. He infamously posed for Life magazine standing on his head in front of Jean with the caption “VIRILE GOVERNOR.” Jean Thurmond died in 1960 of a brain tumor. They had no children.
The most significant moment of Thurmond’s governorship occurred outside of South Carolina and was directly related to the growing national ferment over race. Up to this moment Thurmond had stayed clear of any direct racial disputes, but now he was drawn into the debate between southern Democrats and the national party over civil rights. Though relatively inexperienced and less well known than long-serving southern senators, Thurmond emerged as a leader in the states’ rights movement. A central tenet was the belief that the states had complete freedom to regulate social affairs within their borders–“custom and tradition” in Thurmond’s benign euphemism for segregation.
While delegates from Mississippi and Alabama bolted the July 1948 Democratic convention in Philadelphia, Thurmond held the South Carolina delegates in check. A few days later he went to the states’ rights gathering in Birmingham. Responding to urgent entreaties, he agreed to carry the group’s banner in the presidential election. In a racially charged speech accepting the nomination as the States’ Rights Democratic Party candidate, Thurmond said, “I want to tell you 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.” Thurmond and his running mate, Mississippi governor Fielding Wright (dubbed the “Dixiecrats”), carried only Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina.
In 1950 Thurmond challenged incumbent U.S. senator Olin D. Johnson but was defeated in the Democratic primary. It was the only election Thurmond ever lost. He returned to his law practice after his gubernatorial term, but politics beckoned again in 1954. After the unexpected death of U.S. Senator Burnet Maybank barely two months before the next election, Democratic Party leaders selected Edgar Brown to be his replacement over objections from those who favored a more open process. Thurmond was cajoled into running as a write-in candidate and prevailed over Brown in the November election with a stunning 63.1 percent of the votes.
Despite the events of 1948, Thurmond promised that he would participate in the Senate’s Democratic caucus. He had also promised to resign and run for a full term in 1956.
Though friends urged Thurmond to ignore his resignation promise, he refused. He came back to South Carolina and coasted to reelection in 1956 when no one filed to run against him. In the meantime Thurmond burnished his segregationist credentials. He was the major force behind the “Southern Manifesto” in 1956, a broadside that counseled resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that mandated the desegregation of public schools. The next year Thurmond set the record for a filibuster (twenty-four hours, eighteen minutes) when he spoke against a civil rights bill that eventually passed. The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Kennedy’s subsequent moves on civil rights created renewed disaffection. When Lyndon Johnson assumed the White House after Kennedy’s assassination and pressed civil rights legislation with even more vigor, Thurmond, though not the architect of the southern resistance, was a vocal and consistent opponent of every new bill.
Unhappy with the Democrats’ political drift and acting against the advice of friends and associates, Thurmond switched parties when Arizona Republican Barry Goldwater secured the 1964 GOP nomination for president. Thurmond claimed, “The Democratic Party has abandoned the people.” Though he would not be the most important southern Republican in the decades to come, he was at the forefront of the region’s political realignment, and in 1968 he was an important part of Richard Nixon’s vaunted “southern strategy.” The emerging political realignment in the South was fueled in large part by the transformation of the electorate from all-white to white and black. The critical element was the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which Thurmond, like every other Deep South senator, opposed.
But time would demonstrate Thurmond’s ability to adjust to new realities. He was first to hire a black man, Thomas Moss, to his Senate staff. Thurmond also began to court the growing number of black politicians in the state and paid more attention to black communities seeking federal help. In a changed electorate, he should have been a prime target for defeat, but even as a Republican he won easy reelection in 1966, 1972, and 1978. On December 22, 1968, Thurmond married Nancy Moore, a former Miss South Carolina forty-four years his junior. They had four children by 1977, and the family proved to be an asset in his successful race in 1978 against an accomplished and much younger opponent, Charles “Pug” Ravenel.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the return of the Senate to Republican control gave Thurmond his first committee chairmanship, of the Judiciary Committee, and at a dramatic moment. The man with a reputation as the standard-bearer for segregation now headed the committee that handled the renewal of the all-important Voting Rights Act. Thurmond chose not to play obstructionist politics and ended up supporting the renewal bill. The next year he backed a federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
Democrats regained control of the Senate from 1987 to 1994. When Republicans took over again after the 1994 election, Thurmond became chairman of the Armed services Committee and president pro tempore of the Senate. But at age ninety-two, he was a figurehead; the day-to-day work was done by others. Reelected to a seventh term in 1996, he relinquished the chairmanship at the end of 1998, a concession to his advancing age and infirmities. Thurmond focused on his ceremonial role as Senate president, but his frail condition required him to give up those duties early in 2001. Nevertheless, he remained in office: the oldest senator ever and the longest-serving. He completed his final Senate term and then retired to a special suite in the Edgefield County Hospital. He died in Edgefield on June 26, 2003, and was buried in Willowbrook Cemetery.
Six months after Thurmond died, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a seventy-eight-year-old woman who lived in Los Angeles, came forward to say that she was the child of Thurmond and Carrie Butler, who in 1925 had been a sixteen-year-old black maid working for the Thurmonds in Edgefield. Thurmond had long been rumored to have fathered a black child, but he always denied it, as did Williams, saying for years that she was simply a family friend. When she came forward in December 2003, Williams said that Thurmond had maintained a private relationship with her, helping financially over the years. Thurmond’s son, J. Strom Jr., said that the family would not contest Williams’s claim.
Banks, James G. “Strom Thurmond and the Revolt against Modernity.” Ph.D. diss., Kent State University, 1970.
Bass, Jack, and Marilyn W. Thompson. Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond. Atlanta: Longstreet, 1998.
Cohodas, Nadine. Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Lachicotte, Alberta. Rebel Senator: Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. New York: Devon-Adair, 1966.
“Strom Thurmond, S.C. Legend, Dies.” Columbia State, June 27, 2003, pp. A1, A4.
Thompson, Marilyn W. “What a Family Secret Begat: Essie, Strom, and Me.” Washington Post, December 21, 2003, p. D1.
Thurmond, Strom. Papers. Clemson University Library Special Collections, Clemson.