Born James Strom Thurmond, December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, SC; died of natural causes, June 26, 2003, in Edgefield, SC. Politician. Former U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond died in June of 2003, just months after his historic record as a 47–year member of Congress ended with his retirement. The South Carolina Republican was once a staunch segregationist, but modified his views as civil–rights legislation went into effect across the land in the 1960s. "Times change and people change, and people who can't change don't stay in office long," Washington Post obituary writer J. Y. Smith quoted him as saying.
Born in Edgefield, South Carolina, in 1902, Thurmond was the son of a judge and grew up in a town that produced many of the state's governors. He earned a horticulture degree from the forerunner of Clemson University in 1923, and began his career as a teacher and coach before winning his first political race as superintendent of Edgefield county schools in 1928. After studying on his own to pass the state bar exam, he served as county attorney for Edgefield from 1930 to 1938. He also spent part of the decade in the state house and as an appellate judge.
After returning from World War II a decorated veteran who took part in the D–Day invasion of France, Thurmond immediately re–entered politics in his home state. He was a Democrat during this first half of his long political career. In the years after the American Civil War, the party was firmly associated with white Southern political power, and Thurmond courted votes by taking up the issue of segregation of the races, but once in office often acted more progressively. Elected South Carolina governor in 1946, he put one of the toughest prosecutors in the state on a 1947 lynching case involving 28 whites who had killed a black man.
Perhaps the most infamous period in Thurmond's political career came during the 1948 presidential race. Incumbent Democrat Harry S Truman had recently enacted civil–rights reforms, including a historic desegregation of the armed forces, that were vehemently opposed by many white Southerners. At that year's Democratic National Convention, many Southern delegates walked out when calls were made to adopt civil–rights reform as a plank in the party's platform. Thurmond joined the breakaway group, called the States' Rights Democratic Party, and was nominated as its candidate for the White House. The "Dixiecrat" party, as it was called, staunchly opposed desegregation efforts and federal measures that would force all states to comply. Speaking on behalf of Southerners, Thurmond asserted that "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation and amusement," the New York Times writer Adam Clymer quoted him as saying.
Thurmond and the Dixiecrats won a million popular votes, 39 electoral ones, and placed third in the race, but it did not fail to return Truman to the White House. Over the next decade, Thurmond remained a strong opponent of court rulings and federal laws that attempted to desegregate the South. His stance, he asserted, was not based on any personal racial bias, but rather against federal involvement in state matters. With his gubernatorial term set to expire in 1951, Thurmond entered South Carolina's 1950 Senate race, but lost. He won a seat four years later as write–in candidate, making him the first and only U.S. Senator to enter the chamber as a write–in candidate. As the civil–rights struggle gained momentum, Thurmond responded with vigor, once speaking on the Senate floor for more than 24 hours straight in a filibuster to delay voting, but the first federal civil rights bill since 1875 passed anyway.
Thurmond decamped to the Republican Party in 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act into law that year. "The party of our fathers is dead," the New York Times obituary by Clymer quoted Thurmond as saying. Within a few years, however, Thurmond was also courting minority voters himself. Recognizing that the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave new political power to blacks in the South and that the white hold on political power in the South was eroding, he became one of the first Southern senators to hire an African American on his staff in 1971. Thurmond was elected to the Senate seven more times after his 1954 write–in bid, usually by strong margins. He began his last six–year term in early 1997, returning to his seat as chair of the Senate Armed Services. Previously, he had chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and served as president pro tempore of the Senate. He sponsored few important bills during his career, but was known as a champion "pork–barrel" politician, able to secure federal funds for his home state. The final day of his career in Congress arrived on November 19, 2002 and, in honor of his service, Thurmond was given the gavel and allowed to preside over the Senate that day, though his party did not have the majority at the time. He closed the year's session with the words, "That's all," according to Clymer in the New York Times.
Thurmond died at age 100 on June 26, 2003, of natural causes in his hometown of Edgefield. Among many of the other records he held, one ended that day: Thurmond was the last living American politician elected by veterans of U.S. Civil War, which came during his 1928 run for Edgefield County school superintendent. He was widowed in 1960 when his spouse of 20–some years, Jean Crouch, in died of cancer. Eight years later Thurmond wed former Miss South Carolina Nancy Moore, with whom he had four children. Three survived him, and six months after Thurmond's death a 78–year–old California woman stepped forward to admit that she was Thurmond's daughter as well. The incident was a final coda on one of America's most revered and once–jeered politicians, for Essie Mae Washington–Williams was the product of a liaison between a 22–year–old Thurmond and the African–American maid in his parents' home.
Chicago Tribune, June 26, 2003, sec. 1, p. 1; CNN.com , http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS//06/26/thurmond.obit/index.html (June 27, 2003); http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2003/special.strom.thurmond/stories/bio/index.html (June 27, 2003); Independent (London, England), June 28, 2003, p. 20; Los Angeles Times, June 27, 2003, p. A1; July 1, 2003, p. A2; New York Times, June 28, 2003, p. A13; July 1, 2003, p. A2; December 20, 2003, p. A1; People, July 14, 2003, p. 123; Washington Post, June 27, 2003, p. A1.
— Carol Brennan