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With GOP primary, South Carolina finally buries Strom Thurmond

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, June 27, 2010

Strom Thurmond died in 2003. Last week, South Carolina finally buried him.

The hubbub over Nikki Haley's win in the state's Republican gubernatorial primary eclipsed what for the rest of the nation could be more significant: Thurmond's son was defeated in a run for Congress -- by a black man. This is a beautiful thing, because the fall of the late segregationist's son counters some stereotypes of the South and some of the noxious impressions Tea Party activists have made.

This poetic story line comes not from a black majority district nor even from a swing district, but from South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, a coastal stretch from Charleston to Myrtle Beach where a mere 20 percent of residents are black. It's solidly Republican territory: John McCain beat Barack Obama by 14 points here in 2008. It also happens to be where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

And the story gets better: Among the other candidates defeated in the Republican primary by the African American was Carroll Campbell III, son of a former governor and, according to local reports, previously a member of an all-white country club. Both Campbell and Paul Thurmond featured snapshots on their campaign Web sites of their famous fathers. Paul Thurmond's supporters also had spoken favorably of his "father's legacy," as the Myrtle Beach Sun-News put it in its endorsement. That legacy, of course, includes the famous 24-hour-18-minute Senate filibuster in 1957 in opposition to civil rights.

There are caveats to this happy theme. The victor, 44-year-old Tim Scott, is, if anything, more conservative than the 34-year-old Thurmond. Backed by Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee and the conservative Club for Growth, he calls President Obama a socialist and describes himself as coming from "the far, conservative right." Scott, who had been embraced by white voters for years at the county and state levels (he even co-chaired Strom Thurmond's Senate reelection campaign in 1996), is a racial outlier.

But that doesn't change the fact that white, conservative voters in Thurmond's Dixie, in the privacy of the voting booth, chose a black man over Strom's son. To savor this irony, I called up the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose great-grandfather is believed to have been a slave owned by Thurmond kin.

"Given that Strom Thurmond's family owned my family, Strom is somewhere trying to think how an African American Republican could beat a relative of his," Sharpton told me. Though he called it a "bittersweet celebration" that voters merely chose "a black reactionary over a white reactionary," it's still a celebration. "You'd have to say there has been some kind of shift in racial attitudes in that area," the civil rights leader said. "When a relative of a segregationist can be defeated by an African American, it's some kind of statement."

Just maybe this also shows us something hopeful about the Tea Party movement. I've seen with my own eyes the racism at Tea Party tax protests and rallies against health-care reform: the racist signs about Obama, the "Joker" image of Obama in whiteface, the taunting of black lawmakers and the "birther" slander.

But the vote in South Carolina's 1st District suggests that the clowns who hijack the Tea Party demonstrations do not speak for the conservative movement. It is, admittedly, a small sample -- only 14 percent of eligible 1st District voters, or about 70,000, showed up for Tuesday's runoff contest. But the repudiation of Thurmond was unmistakable: He got 32 percent to Scott's 68 percent.

South Carolinians have had plenty to be embarrassed about lately: Mark Sanford's fling in Argentina via the Appalachian Trail, Joe Wilson's "you lie," Jim DeMint's "Waterloo," the preposterous Alvin Greene candidacy, the allegations of Haley's infidelity, the state legislator using the term "raghead" for Obama and Haley (of Sikh ancestry), the state GOP activist who called an escaped gorilla one of Michelle Obama's ancestors.

Scott, too, has his zany side. He still believes in the Laffer Curve, the theory disproved a quarter-century ago that cutting taxes increases government revenue. Still, South Carolinians have something to be proud of in their choice of Scott. After his victory last week, Scott (who has an easy general-election race) told Charleston's Post and Courier that South Carolina voters "want conservative candidates and don't care what they look like." That certainly could not have been said in Strom Thurmond's day.

In the current political environment, such small victories are worth celebrating. There is a lot of anger and hatred in our politics now -- but it was once worse.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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