CHARLESTON, S.C. — What finally opened Paul Thurmond’s eyes and changed his heart was in the Gospel of Mark — the very New Testament passage that his state Senate colleague Clementa Pinckney and eight other members of Emanuel AME Church here were studying the night they were gunned down in an apparent racist hate crime.
It was the parable of the sower, in which Jesus explains that if a seed falls on fertile ground, it can yield thirty- or sixty- or a hundredfold.
“I thought it spoke to my public service,” Thurmond said Monday in an interview. “I kept thinking about the circumstances. I kept praying about what had happened, and there was this really true belief that good could come out of this horrible tragedy.”
The next morning, with that verse fresh in his mind, the 39-year-old Republican legislator wrote the speech he would deliver the following day on the Senate floor, calling for the Confederate battle flag to be taken down from the state capitol grounds.
The youngest son of former South Carolina governor and U.S. senator Strom Thurmond noted that his great-grandfather had been with Robert E. Lee when the Confederate commander surrendered at Appomattox.
“I am aware of my heritage, but my appreciation for the things my forebears accomplished to make my life better does not mean that I must believe that they always made the right decisions,” Thurmond said. “And for the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based in part on the desire to continue the practice of slavery.”
Though Paul Thurmond did not mention his father in that speech, it was lost on no one that he was signaling a generational shift.
“Strom Thurmond’s legacy lingers even in this century,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the state Republican Party. “But ironically enough, the page has been turned by his son.”
Over the past three-quarters of a century, no name in South Carolina — and, it could be argued, the nation — has been more closely associated with the politics of race and segregation than that of Strom Thurmond.
In 1948, after the Democrats added a civil rights plank to their platform, then-Gov. Thurmond broke away and ran for president as a “Dixiecrat,” vowing, “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.”
As a U.S. senator, he stood and filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes, setting a record that still stands. And when he finally left his party to become a Republican in 1964 — a move that foreshadowed the realignment of politics in the South — Thurmond said it was in part because the Democrats had “forsaken the people to become the party of minority groups.”
An oil portrait of Strom dominates Paul’s law office in quaint downtown Charleston, and the walls are covered with photos and relics. They include framed tickets to the opening and closing of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate, where the third-longest-serving senator in history wielded the gavel.
“I love my father. He was a wonderful role model for me,” Paul Thurmond said. But he added: “I’ve always wanted to kind of make my own way. I am my own person.”
“I have tried to do what I think is right. I’m not ashamed of what he has done in the past. There are some amazing things that he has done,” he said. “There are certainly some things that I would not agree with, and his position in 1948, and his position in 1957, would certainly fall into that category.”
It comes down to a paradox, he acknowledged. “I’m my own person, and yet I’m also his legacy.”
Strom Thurmond reflected and drove the poisoned politics of his state in his time. The raising of the Confederate battle flag over the capitol in Columbia in 1961, ostensibly to commemorate the Civil War centennial, was widely seen as a middle finger to federal desegregation efforts.
In the decades since, the banner has remained a raw wound in this increasingly diverse state, one that did not heal after a compromise was struck in 2000 to move the flag from atop the capitol dome to a pole near the street.
The younger Thurmond does not recall ever being asked, either as a candidate or a public official, what he thought of the flag — and as a result, he said, he had not given it much consideration.
Shaken as he was by the killing of his Charleston-area colleague, Pinckney, Thurmond acknowledged that he initially was angered by new calls to remove the flag. “My first reaction was just the same as I think a lot of people are still reacting, which was: How can you take this tragedy and create a political issue from it — creating a political opportunity, so to speak?”
But when he went to a vigil for the victims, Thurmond said, he was struck by a passage cited from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 letter from a Birmingham jail: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Then the parable of the sower convinced him that, indeed, a moment had arrived when something good could happen.
Later in his life, as his state shifted on racial issues, Strom Thurmond did as well. He appointed African Americans to his Senate staff, for instance, and supported a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and the extension of the Voting Rights Act. But he always insisted he had no regrets for his earlier stands.
Strom Thurmond was 73 years old when Paul, the youngest of his four children by his second wife, Nancy, was born in 1976. When Paul was only 6 weeks old, his father enrolled him for entrance in 1993 at the Citadel, the Charleston military college whose cadets are believed to have fired the first shots of the Civil War.
His parents separated when Paul was a child, though they never divorced. Paul went to an integrated public school in Aiken, S.C., and mostly kept in touch with Strom through daily phone calls — which he says he still misses, though it has been a dozen years since his father died at the age of 100.
A state champion high school tennis player, Paul gave up his spot at the Citadel to go to Vanderbilt University, where he was captain of the tennis team. He worked awhile as a Senate staffer and then returned to his home state for law school.
He has been ambivalent about the family business of politics. Thurmond served one term on the Charleston County Council and announced in 2009 that he wanted to return to private life. Then he ran for the U.S. House in 2010, losing in the primary to now-Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.). He was elected to the state Senate in 2012 and has not said whether he will run again.
In the legislature, he has styled himself a fiscal conservative and advocated legislation to make public school teachers more accountable for their performance. After Walter Scott of Charleston, an African American, was shot and killed as he ran from a white police officer in April, Thurmond was an early Republican co-sponsor of a new law to require state and local law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
On Thurmond’s wedding day in 2003, not long after his father’s death, a family secret — something he had heard rumored but never believed — became public. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired Los Angeles schoolteacher, announced that she was Strom Thurmond’s daughter. Her African American mother had worked in the Thurmond household when she was a teenager; Strom had privately acknowledged her and provided financial support since 1941.
“I met her a couple of times — a very, very gracious woman, very kind,” Paul Thurmond said of his half-sister, who died in 2013. On the other end of the capitol grounds from the Confederate flag, her name is now engraved with those of Strom Thurmond’s four other children at the base of a statue of their father.
“I don’t know how I can judge that,” Paul Thurmond said. “There’s no problem for me judging how horrible slavery was and how horrible segregation was, but that’s a relationship. That was with my father and Essie Mae Washington-Williams. Relationships are complicated.”
His family has been supportive of his stand on the flag, and the reaction has been almost universally positive, Thurmond said. Hundreds of e-mails have come in from around the country, and he has tried to answer every one.
The legislature is expected to vote shortly after July 4, and it appears there will be the necessary two-thirds vote to take down the flag.
“My forefathers gave me life.” Thurmond said. “They really built this country and this state. I’m appreciative of their sacrifices. I don’t necessarily have to agree with them.”