Jewish World Review July 1, 2003 / 1 Tamuz, 5763

Michael Graham

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Our Strom | "I want to tell you, ladies and gentleman, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."— Strom Thurmond, 1948.

"Yes, I do."— Strom Thurmond, answering the question "Do you still think the Dixiecrats were right?", in 1998.

In 1996, during my days as a Republican flak, I developed a political strategy designed to do the unthinkable: defeat Strom Thurmond in the GOP primary. I spent months on it, analyzing voter patterns and demographics, writing potential ads, even developing a snazzy logo designed to sweep the aging senator right into the retirement home.

But one morning, just a few weeks before filing was to begin, my candidate— one of a handful of South Carolina Republicans with a legitimate chance of winning-- met me at my office with a grim look on his face.

"Michael, I just can't do it. I can't run against Strom. My heart just isn't in it."

And that was that.

At the last second a relatively unknown state legislator entered the race and asked me to help. We had a great time and ran some great TV ads that still get comments in political circles today, but we knew all along it was an electoral lottery ticket at best. Election day, we were just another flat spot on Strom's long road of political success.

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I wrote later that, if Strom Thurmond were allowed to write his epitaph, it would be "Jes' One Mo' Term," and that South Carolinians would probably give it to him in a landslide.

Like every South Carolinian who traveled outside the South, I have been asked many times why we continued to elect Sen. Thurmond long after his ability to govern was gone. My answer was always the same: He's one of us.

Northerners see Strom Thurmond objectively. They read quotes like ""I don't know how I got such a reputation as a segregationist. I think my position was just misunderstood," and they laugh. With good reason, of course. The Senator's statement is wholly laughable.

But white Southerners don't laugh. Possibly because we--or our parents--have said something very similar ourselves.

I've never had a clear insight as to what black South Carolinians think of Strom. I get the sense that many black southerners of a certain age— old enough, by the way, to have suffered directly under the segregationist laws he enforced— are subdued by their inherent respect for the elderly. In all of my conversations with black southerners, I can't recall one ever insulting a senior. Even George Wallace seemed to win over black hearts and minds just by staying alive so long.

By the time black voters in South Carolina gained the political strength to exact their revenge on Senator Thurmond, he was already too old for them to enjoy it.

Much has been made of Senator Strom's good treatment and sincere compassion for individual black citizens. This is an indisputable matter of record, and the details of his various hirings and promotions have been repeated ad nauseum in the local press. This, too, is another reminder of how closely Sen. Thurmond mirrored the people he served.

The cliché about race relations in America is that Northerners love the black race and hate black people, while Southerners hate the black race but get along fine with their black neighbors. There is some truth to this. Strom Thurmond's later career was the political incarnation of the "I've got black friends" argument used by white Southerners to cushion their prejudices.

This is how Strom could say in 1988 "I have done more for black people than any other person in the nation, North or South," and then be honestly confused when people snickered at him. What had he said wrong, he wondered.

Senator Thurmond wrote the legislation of segregation. He enforced it, he practiced it, he defended it and he used all of his political power to extend it as long as possible. And he never gave a single indication that he did so unwillingly. He believed, as nearly every white Southerner believed, that white people were simply superior to blacks. Segregation was merely a systematic application of the divide that existed between the races. What was there to apologize for?

When the federal government ended segregation, Strom Thurmond acknowledged the newfound political clout of black southerners, but he never acknowledged their worth. White people were still white, blacks were still black and no matter where they sat on the bus, he knew where they belonged.

And so, unlike George Wallace or former Klansman Robert Byrd or even his fellow US Senator Fritz Hollings— who once supported segregation— Senator Thurmond never apologized for his white supremacist politics.

In his mind, he had merely lost the battle. He had never been proven wrong.

Many white South Carolinians resent the media's focus on Strom's racist legacy and the lack of any public expression of regret. Interestingly, many of those attended racially-segregated schools and ate at whites-only lunch counters themselves. Some even voted for Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948.

I wonder how many Thurmond mourners have ever said, "You know, I was wrong. I should have done something about segregation. I should have said something at the time. I didn't, and I regret it."

I've asked a few of these people myself. What was it like during segregation? Didn't you feel ashamed making some black woman get up and give you her bus seat? Do you feel bad about it now?

Almost always, the answer is "You just didn't think about it. It's just the way things were. I never had anything against the blacks. Why, some of my best friends…."

When Strom Thurmond spoke, he spoke for these people. Now that he is gone, they will miss him. They should.

He was their man.

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JWR contributor Michael Graham is a talk show host and author of the highly acclaimed "Redneck Nation: How the South Really Won the War." To comment, please click here.


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© 2003, Michael Graham