Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the year in which Lee Atwater extended the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” nationwide in a George H.W. Bush presidential campaign. It was 1988, not 1978. This version has been corrected. 

As Joseph Crespino approaches the end of this biography of Strom Thurmond, he shows signs of softening toward the senator from South Carolina known primarily during his long career for racism, cynicism, opportunism, hypocrisy and ruthlessness. “Thurmond’s courteousness became part of his legend,” he writes. “His staff adored him for his quirky, old-fashioned manners.” He quotes someone who worked with Thurmond during the 1990s: “I didn’t know the Strom Thurmond from the 1940s. The Strom Thurmond I knew was warm, inspiring, smart, kind, a demanding boss, and the last gentleman I think I’ve known in my life.” Just when you think Crespino has gone gaga, he closes by reminding us of the “racially charged” politics that characterized Thurmond’s career and of the younger Southern Republicans who adapted it as part of their party’s swing to the far, hard right.

Thus Crespino returns in the end to the theme he sets forth in the beginning: that Thurmond is a far more important figure in the development of the modern Republican Party and the Southern strategy that had so much to do with it than is commonly conceded. If he was “one of the last of the Jim Crow demagogues,” he was also “one of the first post-World War II Sunbelt conservatives,” who went beyond race to embrace “Cold War anticommunism, antilabor politics, conservative religious beliefs and opposition to liberal church groups, criticism of judicial activism, and hyper-militarism.” Thurmond, Crespino argues, “is left out of not only Sunbelt history but also the history of conservatism more generally.” The “foundational figures” are assumed to be Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, yet:

“In 1948, when Goldwater was still a year away from running for the Phoenix city council and Reagan was still an actor, Thurmond was a presidential candidate denouncing federal meddling in private business, the growing socialist impulse in American politics, and the dangers of statism, themes that would dominate the postwar conservative movement. . . . Thurmond became a national figure at a time when ‘conservatism’ was still a dirty word in American politics and anathema in his native South. He could never have used the term in 1948 and survived politically. Conservatives were ‘economic royalists,’ the greedy Wall Street Republicans who had plunged the country into the Depression.”

The South when Thurmond made his political debut — he was elected to the South Carolina Senate in 1932 — was not only solidly Democratic, it was Democratic to the very core. Republicans were almost invisible, and such of them as could be found tended to be moderates, loyal to what was still seen as the party of Lincoln, though not necessarily champions of civil rights. It was as a Democrat that Thurmond went on to become governor in 1947 and a U.S. senator in 1955. To be sure, he ran for the presidency in 1948 as the candidate of the States’ Rights Democrats, commonly known as the Dixiecrats, but he resumed his Democratic identity after losing the election decisively, with only 2.5 percent of the vote, and maintained it until 1964, when he switched to the GOP to give his full support to Goldwater and to place himself at the vanguard of the Republican tide that was beginning to sweep through the South.

The Dixiecrat campaign was a flop in the short run, but events to come revealed it as something of a victory. “Thurmond was right that 1948 was a turning point,” Crespino writes, “but not because his States’ Rights campaign marked any simple or inevitable step toward the modern Republican South. It was important because Thurmond was the first southerner in the postwar period to bring together on a regional scale the visceral politics of white supremacy with southern business and industrial opposition to the New Deal. . . . It was an imperfect rhetoric in 1948, and much was lost in trying to translate white supremacist rage into abstract conservative principle. Yet it would be refined and improved by Thurmond and others in the years to come.”

"Strom Thurmond's America" by Joseph Crespino (Hill and Wang/STROM THURMOND INSTITUTE)

Notable among those others were Kevin Phillips, the chief architect of the Southern strategy employed by the Republicans in the early 1970s, and Lee Atwater, who extended that strategy nationwide in the George H.W. Bush campaign of 1988. Both undertakings were successful, and laid the groundwork not only for the dominance the GOP now enjoys in the South but for its swing to the far right nationally in pursuit of tea party ambitions. It is difficult to imagine that these courses would have been pursued if Thurmond had not pointed the way.

Contrary to the warm and fuzzy views of Thurmond that emerged toward the end of his very long life — he died in 2003 at the age of 100 — there is little that sheds any credit on him. What now seems fairly certain is that he will be remembered as a dour segregationist who, while in his early 20s, impregnated a 16-year-old girl employed in his family’s household in the South Carolina town of Edgefield. Her name was Carrie Butler, and she was African American. She gave birth in October 1925 to a daughter, whom she named Essie Mae. The girl was taken to Pennsylvania by one of her mother’s sisters, Mary Washington, and reared there as Essie Mae Washington: “Not until she was thirteen years old did Essie Mae learn the identity of her actual mother. Three years later she met her father, Strom Thurmond, in his law office just off the town square in Edgefield.”

No doubt an assiduous researcher could uncover an even more blatant instance of hypocrisy in American politics, but it is difficult to imagine what that might be. Here we have one of the most perfervid racists of the 20th century — one to rank with Theodore Bilbo, Leander Perez and George Wallace — fathering a child by a black servant and then keeping that child’s existence a secret while riding white hatred of blacks to a political career that spanned seven decades. In 1970, when South Carolina voters defeated a gubernatorial candidate whom Thurmond strenuously supported — a candidate who ran as a strict segregationist — “Thurmond realized that the old tactics of racial polarization could backfire, and, sly old pro that he was, he embraced a more moderate politics of race.” But only a fool could believe that this was out of conviction rather than expediency.

It is possible that Thurmond didn’t believe in anything, that the fiery rhetoric of racial hatred that he spouted for the first four decades of his career was as calculated and opportunistic as his eventual retreat from it. Certainly Crespino, who teaches history at Emory University in Atlanta, describes a political life in which calculation rather than conviction was present at every step.

But Thurmond was a child of his time and place. The time was the early 20th century, when the South was firmly in the grip of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, and the place was a state with a history of racism as deep as that of Mississippi or Alabama. If there ever really was such a creature as a “Southern gentleman” — a highly debatable proposition — Strom Thurmond most surely was not one. In every sense that matters, his legacy is malign, as is evident now in the sub rosa racism that fuels the appalling changes in the Republican Party that he did so much to bring about.


By Joseph Crespino

Hill and Wang. 404 pp. $30