In this unusual political year, there has been an effort by some in high places to make Black History Month a celebration of white contributions to racial progress. But not all white contributions have been toward progress. This is the sixth in a series of biographical sketches that present a different narrative of historic events.
Strom Thurmond makes the top 20 list for several reasons. His life and career spanned the years before the civil rights era, the civil rights years, and the era of “white backlash” and reaction that followed. In each of these periods, he was a powerful voice for bigotry and racial oppression.
Thurmond was a pioneer in the movement that broke apart the unholy Democratic coalition of northern liberals and southern racists and paved the way to the Republican Party becoming the White People’s Party that it is today. He was a political force in the era before civil rights when affirmative action was white, for example, during the time when southern Democrats made sure that black people would not benefit from Social Security or other federal programs.
Finally Thurmond pioneered the posture of being a virulent racist, while, unlike many of his Deep South peers, denying that he was anything of the sort. In that regard, there is a straight line from his actions to the view that white people have done nothing wrong and that they are the true victims of racism. It is this form of denial and professed innocence that has largely prevented us from having racial reconciliation in our country.
Strom Thurmond was also different from the virulent racists that the South had typically sent to Washington. He was “courtly,” a term reserved for “nice” Southerners who did bad things. In this regard, he served as a role model for people like the always-polite Jesse Helms and Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general of the United States.
But whether it was school desegregation, anti-lynching or the elimination of legal segregation, Thurmond was a powerful voice for racial bigotry, violence and oppression. These were not mere “philosophical differences,” as they are now buffed up to represent. Nor can they be covered up by “niceness.” It is not just a philosophical difference to say that “All the laws of Washington, all of the bayonets of the Army, cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement,” or that “There’s not enough troops in the army to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our swimming pools….”
In standing tall for racial oppression, Thurmond ran for President in 1948, outraged, as were his fellow southern racists, by President Truman’s integration of a segregated Army and some mild steps to eliminate discrimination in employment. Later, when the Democratic coalition broke down in the face of national awareness of the horrors of southern racism, Thurmond became a Republican, helping to start the party down the path to becoming the almost exclusively white party of reaction and of Donald Trump.
In 2002, on his 100th birthday, one of his acolytes, another smiling southern politician, Trent Lott of Mississippi, said, ” When Strom Thurmond ran for president, Mississippi voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years either.” One more reason that Thurmond makes the list of worst white people.
Editor’s note on the use of terms. In this series, terms are used in a very specific manner.
“Racism”/”racist” is limited to examples of what has been defined as “scientific racism,” the belief that one race is inherently superior/inferior to others, and, the current use, a power relationship in which one group dominates another, as in “white supremacy.” Racism in this context is typically a system.
“Bigotry” is used to describe group or individual beliefs that stereotype or demean another group. In this sense, bigotry is not limited to the group(s) that wield power over others.
“Racialism” is a term that describes practices intended to pit groups against one another, even in the absence of the individual being a bigot or racist. Racialism is widespread in our political life. For example, in 1964 Barry Goldwater ran ads with a picture of a white worker (“fired”) and a black worker (“hired,”) while in 1980, Jimmy Carter implied that Reagan would re-enslave black people.
As the profiles in this series demonstrate, the boundaries between these terms are fluid, and the outcomes are invariably negative.