Strom Thurmond's America

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“Do not forget that ‘skill and integrity’ are the keys to success.” This was the last piece of advice on a list Will Thurmond gave his son Strom in 1923. The younger Thurmond would keep the words in mind throughout his long and colorful career as one of the South’s last race-baiting demagogues and as a national power broker who, along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, was a major figure in modern conservative politics.

But as the historian Joseph Crespino demonstrates in Strom Thurmond’s America, the late ...

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“Do not forget that ‘skill and integrity’ are the keys to success.” This was the last piece of advice on a list Will Thurmond gave his son Strom in 1923. The younger Thurmond would keep the words in mind throughout his long and colorful career as one of the South’s last race-baiting demagogues and as a national power broker who, along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, was a major figure in modern conservative politics.

But as the historian Joseph Crespino demonstrates in Strom Thurmond’s America, the late South Carolina senator followed only part of his father’s counsel. Political skill was the key to Thurmond’s many successes; a consummate opportunist, he had less use for integrity. He was a thoroughgoing racist—he is best remembered today for his twenty-four-hour filibuster in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957—but he fathered an illegitimate black daughter whose existence he did not publicly acknowledge during his lifetime. A onetime Democrat and labor supporter in the senate, he switched parties in 1964 and helped to dismantle New Deal protections for working Americans.

If Thurmond was a great hypocrite, though, he was also an innovator who saw the future of conservative politics before just about anyone else. As early as the 1950s, he began to forge alliances with Christian Right activists, and he eagerly took up the causes of big business, military spending, and anticommunism. Crespino’s adroit, lucid portrait reveals that Thurmond was, in fact, both a segregationist and a Sunbelt conservative. The implications of this insight are vast. Thurmond was not a curiosity from a bygone era, but rather one of the first conservative Republicans we would recognize as such today. Strom Thurmond’s America is about how he made his brand of politics central to American life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this impressive biography of the late South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond (1902–2003), Emory University historian Crespino (In Search of Another Country) steps beyond the usual “white devil” caricature of an arch-segregationist to provide an evenhanded and sharp account of the man. An “avatar of the Republican Party’s ‘southern strategy,’” Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964 to campaign for Goldwater. As a ranking U.S. senator from 1956 to 2003, Thurmond amassed an immense amount of legislative power. During his long career, Thurmond contested the Supreme Court, communism, organized labor, affirmative action, abortion, and antimilitarism. “Thurmond is incorrectly held up as an example of merely the Old Right. In fact, he was central to the creation of the New,” Crespino argues. While forgoing easy charges of structural racism in the Republican Party, he minces no words: “Thurmond was a thoroughgoing racist” and “one of the last of the Jim Crow demagogues.” Thurmond persistently tried to impede integration and limit voting rights for blacks. When the school busing wars came in the 1970s, Thurmond and other Southerners “were comforted to know that the outrage they had long felt over desegregation was spreading across the country.” Crespino’s portrait reveals a flawed, egotistical, unapologetic, headstrong man whose views helped give birth to the contemporary Right and whose legacy continues to influence the GOP. Illus. Agent: Geri Thoma, Markson Thoma Literary Agency. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Strom Thurmond (1902–2003), the controversial and long-lived conservative U.S. senator from South Carolina, is often considered to have been a living anachronism. A staunch racist and the father of an illegitimate mixed-race daughter, Thurmond was the 1948 Dixiecrat candidate for president. He was pro-business, antiunion, anticommunist, and pro-traditional religion. Crespino (history, Emory Univ.; In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution) brings new perspective to the life and impact of this major player in post-World War II politics. His goal is to present an objective portrayal of both the racist white Southerner and the American conservative. The results are well researched, well written, and engaging, offering a far more authoritative portrait than Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson's Strom or Jeffrey K. Smith's Dixiecrat. Crespino effectively argues that Thurmond has been incorrectly labeled as merely a relic of the Old Right and was, in fact, a driving force behind the evolution of the New Right, i.e., pro-business, anti-labor, pressing for religious influence in politics, etc. VERDICT Strongly recommended for anyone interested in 20th-century American political history or biography.—Leslie Lewis, Duquesne Univ. Lib., Pittsburgh
Kirkus Reviews
Think Strom Thurmond, uber-right-winger and segregationist, is a figure from America's political past? By Crespino's (History/Emory Univ.; In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution, 2007, etc.) account, Thurmond is the guiding spirit of the modern GOP. Readers of a certain age might remember South Carolinian Thurmond as the fiery door-blocking defender of the Old South who, hypocritically, fathered a daughter out of wedlock with an African-American constituent. He was famous in his time for delivering a 24-hour-long speech in filibuster against a civil rights act in 1957; less well known was the fact that as soon as he finished talking, the Senate voted the act into law. It is a mistake to dismiss Thurmond as a relic, though, for Crespino reminds readers that when Barry Goldwater was just beginning his political career, Thurmond was busily "denouncing federal meddling in private business, the growing socialist impulse in American politics, and the dangers of statism," all things of compulsive concern to rightists today. Thurmond was also a pioneer in obsessing over Fidel Castro, "the only senator to issue an unequivocal call for invasion" following the revelation that the Soviets were housing missiles in Cuba. Crespino traces Thurmond's enduring influence to the intervention of Ronald Reagan, who led the conservative charge in the GOP's first effort to denature its "dreaded moderate or liberal" wing, and of Richard Nixon, who, rather than view Thurmond as a "reactionary southern racist and Bircher extremist," played to the senator's fervent desire to be perceived as a statesman. Given the influence of Thurmond's protégés and successors--not least Lee Atwater and his protégé, Karl Rove--on the GOP today, it's small wonder that Thurmond's legacy should be thriving. A solid contribution to contemporary political analysis and a highly useful and timely companion in an election cycle marked by the resurgence of the controversies of Thurmond's day.
From the Publisher
Winner of the Deep South Book Prize

“The most authoritative study on Thurmond to date.”

—Frank Rich, New York Magazine

“A deft portrait.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Insightful . . . masterfully ties together complex historical strands . . . Crespino doesn’t make Thurmond likable, but that’s not his goal. His is loftier and more difficult: to get beneath the surface of an influential politician in order to shed light on our times.”

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“[O]utstanding . . . Crespino presents the right blend of narrative, scholarly analysis, and restrained outrage.”

The Washington Monthly

“[A] fine new biography . . . fascinating as political drama.”

The Barnes & Noble Review

“[An] impressive biography . . . Crespino’s portrait reveals a flawed, egotistical, unapologetic, headstrong man whose views helped give birth to the contemporary Right and whose legacy continues to influence the GOP.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Joseph Crespino argues convincingly [that] Thurmond’s political impact reached far beyond the nostalgic Old South . . . Crespino’s lucid, illuminating book reveals an outsize political personage whose complexities often eluded supporters and antagonists alike.”

American History

“Engaging . . . offer[s] a far more authoritative portrait than Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson’s Strom or Jeffrey K. Smith’s Dixiecrat . . . Strongly recommended for anyone interested in 20th-century American political history or biography.”

Library Journal

“A highly useful and timely companion in an election cycle marked by the resurgence of the controversies of Thurmond’s day.”

Kirkus Reviews

“No other book is likely to offer a more insightful understanding of both Strom Thurmond the man and the age in which he lived. This is a thoroughly terrific and important work, for it makes clear the continuing impact of Thurmond’s legacy on our politics today.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Team of Rivals

“Joseph Crespino’s Strom Thurmond’s America is a historical biography that makes much of recent U.S. history more understandable. It is essential reading for anyone interested in post-1945 American politics.”

Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

“Joseph Crespino brilliantly captures the hypocrisy of a southern society that could mold Strom Thurmond into, simultaneously, an audacious white separatist and a flagrant race-mixer willing to abandon his own black daughter. Crespino also properly positions Thurmond not as an outlier or a relic of a distant era of Dixiecrat racism, but as the architect and harbinger of the extremist, racially tinged politics that would reshape the Republican Party into the twenty-first century.”

Douglas A. Blackmon, former chief of the Wall Street Journal’s Atlanta bureau and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Slavery by Another Name

“This pathbreaking biography reveals a Strom Thurmond whose influence stretched far beyond the racist precincts of Dixie. He was, as Joseph Crespino brilliantly shows, a pioneer of many of the conservative themes we now take for granted: stalwart anticommunism, opposition to labor unions, support for ‘law and order,’ and the promotion of ‘family values.’ Crespino combines the incisiveness of a fine scholar with the literary talent of a gifted storyteller. When I finished the book, I almost felt like cheering!”

Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

“Strom Thurmond has become one of those antic men people hear about but can’t quite believe existed—the racist demagogue with the secret biracial daughter who made self-interest into a public art form. Because Thurmond was such a gifted opportunist, it’s difficult to say what he really believed, leaving the resourceful historian Joseph Crespino to do the near impossible. Strom Thurmond’s America is a reasonable portrait of a reactionary that serves as a valuable prism through which to examine the ways politicians encourage social divisions to consolidate power.”

Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Crowd Sounds Happy and The Catcher Was a Spy

Strom Thurmond’s America is at once a captivating portrait of an important national figure and a nuanced and provocative rethinking of recent American political history. Joseph Crespino handles Thurmond’s personal story with great aplomb and persuasively reframes the late senator as a pivotal character in modern American politics.”

Bruce Schulman, author of The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics

“Joseph Crespino offers a provocative account of Strom Thurmond’s life and the ways in which some conservatives used race to build a national coalition. He makes a compelling and original case that, rather than a throwback to an earlier era in politics, Thurmond was one of the architects of the modern Republican Party, a sophisticated political strategist who played on the fears and anxieties of the American electorate.”

Julian E. Zelizer, author of Jimmy Carter and Governing America

The Barnes & Noble Review

One of the signal moments of Strom Thurmond's lengthy political career was his record-breaking one-man filibuster opposing the 1957 Civil Rights Act. During his speech — which stretched for 24 hours and 18 minutes — the South Carolina senator nibbled on cold steak, slipping away during a procedural interruption for just one brief bathroom break. Reading Joseph Crespino's fine biography, Strom Thurmond's America, one is struck by the thought that Thurmond's life as a whole was marked by endurance. After being elected governor of South Carolina, the strident segregationist ran for president in 1948 as a Dixiecrat — representing the southern wing of the Democratic Party — before settling in to a nearly half-century stretch in the Senate that ended in 2003, when he was 100. Another sign of his knack for survival: the fact that he had fathered a black child, which surely would have destroyed his political prospects, remained hidden until after his death.

That revelation has earned Thurmond a reputation as "one of the great American hypocrites," Crespino writes, because he has long been associated with unreconstructed racism. While Thurmond normally used the coded language of "states' rights" and "law and order" when discussing racial issues, he at times devolved into outright racist demagoguery. In the run-up to his 1948 presidential campaign, for instance, Thurmond gave a speech in which he vowed, "There's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

Crespino, a professor at Emory University, details the explicit racism of Thurmond's early career, which, as the world changed around him, gave way to pragmatic efforts to avoid offending South Carolina's sizable black population. (North Carolina's Jesse Helms eventually replaced Thurmond as the Senate's resident firebrand: while Helms led a 1983 filibuster against honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., with a national holiday, Thurmond quietly voted in favor of the measure.) But Crespino is more interested in looking at Thurmond with a wider lens, arguing astutely that he wasn't simply a durable emblem of the racist Old Right but also helped facilitate the ascendance of post-World War II Sunbelt conservatism, which saw the parties realign as the GOP courted white voters in southern and southwestern states. (Thurmond finally, and dramatically, left the Democratic party in 1964 in order to declare himself a "Goldwater Republican.")

The Republican "southern strategy" depended on race-baiting, of course, but also involved maximizing the region's economic potential. Developing the South's business climate was "an imperative for [Thurmond] of no less importance than the politics of Jim Crow," Crespino notes. "But in fact he never had to choose between the two." Even as his open racism came to seem a relic of a bygone age, Thurmond remained committed to a pro-industry and anti-labor agenda. "He'll accept blacks now, but you still don't see Strom shaking hands with union people," a white South Carolina union rep noted drily in 1978. Thurmond, a staunch anti-Communist, also enthusiastically supported every Pentagon project to come down the pike, helping ensure the Sunbelt's participation in the spoils of the Cold War's military-industrial alliance.

Thurmond's longevity, and his gentlemanly, old-school style of politics, turned him into a "nostalgic figure" late in his career; when Sandra Day O'Connor was nominated to the Supreme Court, Crespino notes that he acted more like the father of the bride than the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, declaring, "We love you for your beauty, respect you for your intelligence, adore you for your charm." In his final years, increasingly confused and addled, the senator "gradually slipped from legend into parody." He died in June 2003, six months after leaving office; six months after that, an elderly retired African-American schoolteacher named Essie Mae Washington-Williams held a press conference to announce that Thurmond was her father and had provided her financial support throughout her life.

Washington-Williams spoke of her father without bitterness. It's also notable that by the end of his career the senator had won the loyalty of a number of his black constituents. Regarding race, "Thurmond would never provide his aides or posterity with any accounting of what he had believed in the past, why he had acted as he did, and how his beliefs had changed," Crespino writes. "Nor would he ever apologize." The book's footnotes suggest that the author did not have access to Thurmond's children or others who might have offered insights about the senator's private evolution, if he indeed had one. Strom Thurmond's America is fascinating as political drama, but the personal dramas that may have influenced Thurmond's actions remain frustratingly out of reach.

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780809094806
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/4/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 8.90 (w) x 6.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Crespino is a professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution and the coeditor of The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note ix

Introduction 3

Part 1 Up from Edgefield

1 Edgefield, U.S.A. (1902-1932) 15

2 Becoming Governor Thurmond (1932-1947) 34

Part 2 States' Rights Democrat

3 Lost in Translation (1948) 61

4 Pluck and Luck (1949-1954) 85

5 Massive Resistances (1955-I960) 102

6 Outside Agitators (1960-1963) 127

7 Muzzling and the American Right (1958-1963) 143

Part 3 Sunbelt Republican

8 Party Hopping (1964) 165

9 Law and Order (1965-I968) 185

10 Annus Mirabilis (1968) 207

11 Perils of an Insider (1969-1972) 230

12 A New Right and the Old (1972-1980) 253

Part 4 Myths, Memories, and Legacies

13 Ol' Strom in the Modern South (1978-1990) 279

14 All Strom's Children (1990-2003) 302

Epilogue: The Scarred Stone 319

Notes 323

Acknowledgments 381

Index 383

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2012


    A brown-gray tabby appears bearing Revengeclan scent. "I guess Mouse isn't always this bad tempered. Oh well. I'll come back later to WolfClan to look for Calicopaw and..." Suddenly he sees the kit in the cage. He turned to the silver cat, his gaze shocked and angry. "Just what do you think you are doing with this kit?!"

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    Puts stormkit in a cage

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