Jewish World Review Dec. 19, 2003/ 24 Kislev 5764
Strom's daughter shows what class not race is all about
COLUMBIA, S.C. Ask most thoughtful South Carolinians what they think about Essie Mae Washington-Williams - Strom Thurmond's biracial daughter who publicly identified herself Wednesday - and you'll most likely hear: "It's complicated."
Commentary doesn't get any more Southern than that. In the land of manners, you don't look directly at a thing. You avert your eyes from "unpleasantness." And you don't talk directly about people, which would cast doubt upon the quality of one's upbringing.
So that when a 22-year-old white man named Thurmond takes a 16-year-old black girl named Carrie Butler to his bed, well, things happen. Or they used to. What today would be statutory rape was perfectly legal in 1925 when the black family maid gave birth to Thurmond's daughter. The cutoff for consent in those days was age 14.
And when a black girl gives birth to a baby whose daddy happens to be the son of her wealthy white employer, well, those things happen, too. And life goes on.
Life went on a very long time for Strom Thurmond, who died this year at 100. It didn't last so long for Carrie Butler, who died at age 38. Today, the baby girl that resulted from young Thurmond's wild oats is 78 and last week showed the nation what class - not race - is all about.
"I am not bitter. I am not angry ... at last, I feel completely free," Washington-Williams told a crowd of some 400 who gathered Wednesday to hear her speak.
"My name is Essie Mae Washington-Williams," she said. "My father's name was James Strom Thurmond."
Was the audience stunned? Riveted, maybe, but not surprised.
"Everybody had heard about it," said a 1969 graduate of Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield, S.C., Thurmond's hometown. "I wasn't a bit surprised."
Indeed, not only had rumors circulated for decades, but also news stories and books had repeated the tale through the years. And the truth is, Thurmond did little to hide his association with his daughter.
She visited him at the governor's mansion when he was governor, albeit through the back door, and in his Washington, D.C., offices. Thurmond visited Washington-Williams when she was a student at South Carolina State College, arriving indiscreetly in a black limo. Hardly the behavior of a man trying to hide something.
Officially, they were just friends. Unofficially, as everybody and the horse they rode in on knew, he was her daddy and she was his little girl - the only child he had until he was 68 years old. What seems clear is that Thurmond cared about his daughter, even if he didn't publicly acknowledge her.
That omission today seems unfathomably cruel and - that gravest of sins - hypocritical. While Thurmond was running for president of the United States as a Dixiecrat segregationist, his own flesh and blood wasn't allowed to vote and he was fighting to keep things that way.
Yet he kept Washington-Williams in his life.
Say what you will about what might have been, what Thurmond should have done, how the South might have been different had Thurmond been straight-up about his interracial relationships, he was no deadbeat. He supported his daughter, sent her to college and was financially reliable throughout her life, Washington-Williams said.
Cynics and critics may prefer to say he paid off his child to keep her quiet, but Washington-Williams' grace and history belie the charge. If profit were her interest, she could have gotten millions for this story while Thurmond was living. Moreover, she isn't seeking money now, though a book and movie seem probable.
By her own explanation, Washington-Williams and Thurmond respected each other. "I never wanted to do anything to harm him or cause detriment to his life or the lives of those around him," she said during her news conference.
He was, after all, her father.
There are as many jokes about Strom Thurmond's legendary libido, his womanizing and his stubborn longevity, as there are stories about his generous constituent care, evenly distributed among blacks and whites, and his metamorphosis from staunch segregationist to inclusive benefactor.
All contribute to the justifiable wonder with which others view Thurmond's home state and lend credibility to the possibility that South Carolinians are indeed insane. If Strom Thurmond rose from the dead today - and some reckon he might - voters probably would re-elect him to the Senate, sponsor a reunion for his biracial family, and politely avert their eyes from the unpleasantness of his hypocrisy.
Things happen in life and, goodness knows, life is complicated.
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