Ex-Senator Thurmond Dies at 100

By J.Y. Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 27, 2003

Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who forged one of the most remarkable careers in American public life while becoming the longest-serving U.S. senator in history and the oldest person to serve in Congress, died last night in his home town of Edgefield, S.C. He was 100.

Thurmond's death was announced to his former colleagues at about 11 p.m. by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who interrupted Senate debate on a major Medicare bill to salute a man he called "a close friend, a confidante, a colleague." Thurmond had decided not to seek another term last fall and left the Senate in January.

Thurmond died at 9:45 p.m., his son, Strom Jr., said. He had been living in a newly renovated wing of a hospital in Edgefield. Frail and wheelchair-bound in his final years, Thurmond was a robust man for decades, proud of his ability to do dozens of pushups and harsh on aides who pursued unhealthy practices such as smoking cigarettes.

Once an outspoken and intransigent defender of racial segregation, Strom Thurmond burst on to the national scene in 1948 as the presidential nominee of the "Dixiecrat" States' Rights Party. For more than two decades, he fought the civil rights movement that transformed the nation in the last half of the 20th century.

With Harry Dent, a key aide who later worked for President Richard M. Nixon, Thurmond helped devise the "southern strategy" that paved the way for a Republican majority in the South. Its essence was an appeal to white resentment of court-ordered school desegregation and similar developments. But when it became clear that the tide of civil rights could not be turned back, Thurmond embraced a policy of racial inclusion.

Thurmond was a former state legislator, circuit judge and governor. He was a decorated veteran of World War II -- as a 41-year-old Army glider pilot, he landed in Normandy on D-Day. He later was a major general in the Army Reserve.

With his courtly manners and inimitable drawl, he was the personification of a southern gentleman. He also was a teetotaler, a physical fitness buff and an admirer of young and beautiful women. His first wife was his junior by 23 years. His second wife, Nancy Moore, a South Carolina beauty queen, was 44 years younger than he. The two had been separated, but remained married for many years.

Thurmond became a father for the first time at the age of 68, and he became a first-time grandfather last week.

His most important quality was an ability to adapt to political reality. The turning point was the 1970 gubernatorial election in South Carolina, in which his candidate raised the racial issue and lost. In 1971, Thurmond for the first time appointed a black professional to his Senate staff. He also began sponsoring African Americans for federal judgeships and other jobs. He was one of the first southern lawmakers to do so.

Black South Carolinians began receiving an increasing share of the constituent services that Thurmond always had provided to whites. The state's traditionally black colleges were included in federal funding programs. Thurmond attended their football games, and for years he sponsored a Senate resolution to designate a National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week.

In 1983, he supported legislation that made the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday even as some other southern Republicans -- then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), for example -- bitterly opposed it.

"Times change and people change, and people who can't change don't stay in office long," he told an interviewer. "You got to meet changing conditions."

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2003 The Washington Post Company