Strom Thurmond's America
By Joseph Crespino
Hill and Wang Copyright © 2012 Joseph Crespino
All rights reserved.
On December 5, 1902, John William Thurmond and his wife, Eleanor Gertrude, of Edgefield, South Carolina, welcomed the arrival of James Strom Thurmond, their second son. The child was born and raised a son of Edgefield. At the turn of the twentieth century, that accident of birth was sufficient to provide a politically minded white boy with a sense of heritage and calling.
Edgefield County was the home of ten governors and lieutenant governors of South Carolina. It has also bequeathed some of the more legendary figures in southern history. Preston Brooks, the South Carolina representative who in 1856 viciously assaulted the antislavery advocate Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, was a native. So was the U.S. senator Andrew Butler, Brooks's relative, whom Sumner had allegedly insulted in a speech several days earlier, which had prompted Brooks's attack. Two leaders of the Texans at the Alamo, James Bonham and William Barret Travis, were from Edgefield, as was "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, one of the most infamous demagogues of the Jim Crow South.
In a state known for producing passionate, quick-tempered leaders of lost causes, Edgefield stands out. William Watts Ball, the longtime editor of Charleston's News and Courier, immortalized Edgefield as a quintessential southern locale. "Their virtues were shining, their vices flamed," Ball wrote. "They were not careful reckoners of the future, sometimes they spoke too quickly, and so acted, yet in crises an audacity that might have been called imprudence by milder men made them indispensable to the state." Another encomium from Ball so succinctly summarized the mythology of Edgefield that the town elders had it painted on the side of a store facing the village square: "It has had more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers, daredevils, than any county of South Carolina, if not of any rural county of America."
Established in 1785, Edgefield County has always bridged the up-country and low country, the most salient division in South Carolina politics dating from the American Revolution to the demise of the white primary in the mid-twentieth century. The low country experienced its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dominated by trade in Charleston and large-scale rice, sugar, and indigo plantations. In the late nineteenth century, the up-country became one of the first southern areas to embrace industrialization, primarily cotton mills, though more diverse industries followed after World War II.
Renowned for its record of political leadership, Edgefield has also been notorious for its violence. In its earliest days as a frontier society, brutal confrontations between white settlers and Native Americans were a way of life in sparsely settled areas of western Carolina. In the antebellum period, law officers were few, and vigilantism was commonplace. So too was dueling. Yet a new chapter was written in Edgefield's bloody history during Reconstruction.
The county was a hotbed of violence in 1876, the year that Wade Hampton and the "Red Shirts" overthrew the Republicans, restoring Democratic rule and white supremacy. The violence began in Edgefield County on July 4, 1876, the hundredth anniversary of American independence. A confrontation between African American militiamen and several local white rifle clubs led by the former Confederate general Matthew Butler turned bloody. When the black men took refuge in their "armory," a room above a Hamburg storefront, white men massed in the street below. Shots were fired back and forth. After one white man was killed, the mob opened fire with artillery and drove the militiamen from their stronghold. About thirty black militiamen were captured. Five were executed on the spot. The rest were eventually turned loose and fired upon as they fled; at least two more were killed.
Wade Hampton, the Democratic candidate for governor, maintained an aura of racial benevolence, promising to serve as "the Governor of the whole people." Yet it was the Red Shirts' coordinated campaign of terror that was the key to Democratic success. Matthew Butler joined with Martin Gary, a fellow Confederate hero who had moved to Edgefield to practice law, to mimic the reign of violence and intimidation that had allowed white Mississippians to restore white supremacy in that state the previous year. On Election Day, Martin Gary delivered a rousing speech to some fifteen hundred Red Shirts who had gathered at Oakley Park, the stately antebellum mansion he owned in Edgefield — just 150 yards from where Strom Thurmond would be born, twenty-six years later.
White vigilantism against African Americans continued unabated in the decades that followed Hampton's campaign. It became an integral part of the crusade to disenfranchise black voters, an effort that reached its apotheosis in the new constitution of 1895. By the time Strom Thurmond was born, violence at the polls had become relatively rare only because white political power had become so firmly established. White vigilantism against blacks, however, continued well into the twentieth century. In roughly the first two decades of Thurmond's life — from 1904 to 1918 — a lynching took place in South Carolina, on average, every four months. This, of course, accounted only for murders that were actually reported. Many were never discovered, and white men regularly killed blacks with impunity. When local prosecutors went to the trouble of filing charges, whites easily won acquittal from juries of their peers.
Benjamin Tillman, the man who more than any other embodied the racist violence of the era, was a close family friend of the Thurmonds'. Tillman was born near Trenton, just south of the town of Edgefield. He rose to prominence in state politics and was elected governor in 1890 as the defender of the small farmer. Though a stalwart agrarian reformer, he was careful to appropriate populism for South Carolina Democrats, avoiding the biracial coalitions that characterized populist movements in some southern states. In 1894, he replaced Matthew Butler in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1918. He was an influential advocate of the 1895 constitution, which replaced the Reconstruction-era document and helped secure the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Nationally, he became well-known as a regular source of intemperate racist outbursts.
Ben Tillman was disreputable in his own day, but to later generations he would become one of the most villainous figures from a disgraceful era in the nation's past. To the young Strom Thurmond he was a towering, irascible figure, the biggest, most important man he had ever met. Strom recalled as a boy his father loading up the family in a wagon to travel the six miles to Senator Tillman's place near Trenton. His father told him to walk up to the "stern" Tillman, offer his hand, and introduce himself. "What do you want?" Tillman asked. "I want to shake hands with you," the boy answered, refusing to be intimidated. "Well, why in the hell don't you shake then?" Strom took his hand and gave it as manly a shake as he could.
Thurmond loved to tell this story of his first political handshake, but by far the most important influence on the boy came not from the man whose hand he shook but from the man who stood nearby, his father, John William Thurmond, known locally as Will. Thurmond's mother was a beloved and revered figure, the daughter of a prominent family in Edgefield, and as an adult Strom would regularly write affectionate letters to her. Yet Will Thurmond was the dominant figure in the lives of his children.
Strom was the second oldest of six, three boys and three girls. It was from Will that Thurmond developed his obsession with good health. The family grew its own grain, which Will would have delivered to a local mill to be ground into whole wheat flour. Strom continued the practice into his seventies, buying bran directly from a mill. While his brothers would both become doctors in Augusta, Strom inherited his father's love of politics. Will Thurmond regularly brought home for lunch or dinner politicians traveling through Edgefield, and Strom would accompany his father on work trips to Columbia. He recalled watching the general assembly from the gallery and meeting the members of the South Carolina Supreme Court, a body with which Will sometimes sat as a special judge. "He was my idol," Thurmond said of his father. "I tried to imitate him as much as I could." Strom hung an enlarged photograph of Will in his Senate office and made copies of a letter his father had written to him in 1923, when he graduated from college. Titled "Advice," the letter listed rules to live by:
Remember your God.
Take good care of your body and tax your nervous system as little possible.
Obey the laws of the land.
Be strictly honest.
Associate only with the best people, morally and intellectually.
Think three times before you act once and if you are in doubt, don't act at all.
Be prompt on your job to the minute.
Read at every spare chance and think over and try to remember what you have read.
Do not forget that "skill and integrity" are the keys to success.
Visitors to his Senate office received a copy as tokens from Thurmond, along with pens, buttons, and other political knickknacks.
Born in Edgefield County in 1862, Will Thurmond was the son of Mary Jane Felter Thurmond, originally of New Orleans, and George Washington Thurmond. A veteran of three wars — the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, and the Civil War, in which he served as a corporal in the Confederate army — G. W. Thurmond was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant. Strom's grandmother, however, was the source of Will's "ambition and his ideals" and was responsible for the bulk of his education.
By his late twenties and early thirties Will Thurmond was one of the most promising young men in Edgefield. He had attended the University of South Carolina for one year before studying law in the office of John C. Sheppard, one of the ten South Carolina governors to have hailed from Edgefield. Passing the bar in 1888 with distinction, Thurmond was immediately elected county attorney. In 1894 and 1895 he represented Edgefield in the general assembly and in 1896, with the backing of the U.S. senator Ben Tillman, who recognized the young Thurmond as a political comer, he won election as solicitor of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which included Columbia. Thurmond would later serve as Tillman's personal lawyer, and the two men remained close political allies. During Woodrow Wilson's administration, Tillman used the full measure of his guile to have Thurmond appointed U.S. attorney for one of two federal districts in the state. Tillman's biographer baroquely described the appointment as a "petal" on Tillman's "odious rose of spoliation." Indeed, Will Thurmond was no easy man to have had appointed. His bright early prospects had been diminished by an incident in 1897, an encounter that forever altered his life's trajectory and would have a profound influence on his son's life as well.
In the late afternoon of Wednesday, March 24, 1897, the thirty-four-year-old Thurmond shot and killed a man named Willie Harris just off the main square in Edgefield. The two men had gotten into an argument over a political appointment that Harris's father had not received, and Harris blamed Thurmond for the slight. A newspaper account noted Harris's "very hot language," though one onlooker described the exchange as innocuous and another as "friendly ... I saw nothing to get mad about." No one disputed, however, that Willie Harris had drunk too much whiskey.
There were conflicting reports of the shooting, one by Thurmond himself and the other by the lone eyewitness, a Captain Dubose, the owner of the hotel where Harris was staying, who was walking with the victim at the time of his death. In his deposition, Will Thurmond provided lurid details of Harris's profanity-laced invective and threatening gestures, including waving a large knife, in the Lynch drugstore. Thurmond testified that Harris declared "I have a damn good knife and a Colt's pistol in my pocket" before walking out of the store. He returned shortly thereafter to wave the knife in front of Thurmond's face.
According to Thurmond, Harris later walked by his office and continued the harassment. Thurmond claimed that during the exchange Harris sprang as if to rush the door and assault him. Thurmond kicked Harris backward. When Harris threw his right hand under his coat, Thurmond fired, killing him with a shot to the sternum.
Captain Dubose's account was less elaborate. He had walked a few steps ahead of Harris but had stopped to listen to Harris's heated denunciation of Thurmond. Dubose's recollection of the conversation accorded generally with Thurmond's, but the testimonies diverged as to Harris's actions. Harris never sprang on Thurmond, according to Dubose, nor did Thurmond kick him backward. Harris simply yelled at Thurmond, "You are a low, dirty scoundrel," after which Thurmond pulled his pistol and fired.
Reports that Solicitor Thurmond, one of South Carolina's chief law-enforcement officials, had committed murder caused a scandal. "How can we hope that the people will respect the laws and human life," editorialized the Baptist Courier, "when our officers, sworn to execute and enforce the laws, put such a low estimate upon human life?" "The pity of it!" declared the Carolina Spartan. "Solicitor Thurmond stands no more chance of conviction for killing Harris than the average Edgefield man who shoots a negro." Speculation turned to whether Thurmond would show up for the next term of court in Columbia to fulfill his duties as solicitor.
An interim official was appointed until Will Thurmond's murder trial in August in the Edgefield Courthouse, only yards away from the scene of the murder. It was a small-town spectacle. The attorney general of South Carolina appeared in person to lead the prosecution. Joining him at the behest of the Harris family was the hero of Hamburg, General Matthew Butler. Defending Thurmond was the ex-governor John C. Sheppard, in whose office Thurmond had sat for the bar, along with J. H. Tillman, Pitchfork Ben's nephew, who five years later would be tried and acquitted himself for the murder of the Columbia State newspaper editor N. G. Gonzales.
Despite the luminaries on hand, the trial itself was uneventful. The jury took a mere thirty minutes to determine that Thurmond had acted in self-defense. The verdict, as reported by the Edgefield Advertiser, was "according to general expectation." An account in The State, however, mocked the proceedings: "Poor Will Harris, like many another murdered man, sleeps unavenged under the sod of Edgefield. Solicitor Thurmond can now return to his official duties in the prosecution of murderers with a spirit purified for the task and a reputation so enhanced by his experience as to make doubly effective his appeals to juries to vindicate the law against murder."
The murder of Will Harris did not diminish Will Thurmond's standing among his fellow townspeople, yet it stunted his career in state politics. The election returns of 1902 left no doubt. Thurmond was one of three candidates in the Democratic primary for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina's Second District. Despite a strong showing in Edgefield and Saluda counties, Will did not even make the runoff election. It would have been a humiliating experience for someone for whom expectations had been so high just a few years earlier. Will Thurmond would never run for elective office again. His only consolation was the birth in December of his second son, James Strom, a child that his wife, Eleanor Gertrude, had carried through the sweltering summer months of Will's political evisceration.
* * *
Strom Thurmond came of age at a time when the heroic memory of the Red Shirt campaign of 1876 was a totem for white South Carolinians, one invoked for political effect by Ben Tillman's generation. When opponents would try to tweak Tillman by questioning his lack of service in the Civil War, Tillman responded, "I have a little record of 1876 ... and have had a little to do with managing elections."
Will Thurmond took part in such rituals as well, recounting his own record of 1876, when the state had been saved from Republican rule. At age fourteen he had helped guard the poll at the Shaw and McKie's Mill precinct in Edgefield County during the presidential election. "There were six or seven negroes to one white man," he recalled. "I had been taught to handle a long pistol for the occasion, and the boys of my age and all white men of the neighborhood, young and old, were at that precinct determined to carry the election for white supremacy." Thurmond added: "I believe that the Negroes should be fairly and justly treated, but the Caucasian race discovered, conquered and brought civilization to this country, and I don't think any other race should be permitted to participate in the politics of this country." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Strom Thurmond's America by Joseph Crespino. Copyright © 2012 Joseph Crespino. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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