James Strom Thurmond (December 5, 1902 - June 26, 2003), known as Strom Thurmond, was the oldest and longest serving United States Senator, who represented South Carolina from 1954 to April 1956 and November 1956 to 1964 as a Democrat and from 1964 to 2003 as a Republican.
Thurmond joined the United States Army Reserve in 1924; on D-Day, 1944 he landed in Normandy with the 82nd Airborne Division. For his military service, he earned 18 decorations, medals and awards, including the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star for Valor, Purple Heart, Belgian Order of the Crown, and French Croix de Guerre.
Thurmond's political career extended from the days of Jim Crow, when he was a strong supporter of racial segregation as a southern Democrat. He was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1947 and worked hard to preserve the state's existing segregation laws.
In the 1948 election he was a candidate for President of the United States on an independent ticket of the States Rights Democratic Party, also known as the Dixiecrat Party, which had split from the Democrats over the issue of segregation. Thurmond carried four states and received 39 electoral votes. His primary campaign platform was the perpetuation of segregation. One 1948 speech, met with cheers by supporters, included the following:
He supported racial segregation with the longest filibuster ever on the Senate floor, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He began by reading the entire text of each state's election laws.
The irony of Thurmond's position on race became fully apparent on 14 December 2003, when Essie Mae Washington-Williams publicly revealed that she was Strom Thurmond's illegitimate daughter, ending a long agreement to conceal the fact. She was born to a black maid in the family household, Carrie Butler, on 12 October 1925, when she was 16 and Thurmond was 22. After Ms. Washington-Williams came forward, the Thurmond family publicly acknowledged her parentage.
Thurmond later claimed to have had a change of heart and endorsed integration earlier than most other Southerners. Some believe this change of policy was a calculated political move designed to extend his Senate career in a changing social environment. Regardless of his motivations, he would later hire black staffers, enroll his daughter in an integrated public school, and support blacks for federal judgeships.
On December 5, 1996, Thurmond became the oldest serving member of the US Senate, and on May 25, 1997, he became the longest serving member (41 years and 10 months). He cast his 15,000th vote in September 1998. He became President Pro Tem of the Senate in 1981, and held the largely ceremonial post for three terms, alternating with his longtime rival Robert Byrd depending on the partisan composition of the Senate. There was some controversy towards the end of Thurmond's Senate career over his mental condition. Some, including close friends, claimed that he had lost mental acuity and should not have been serving in the Senate. Concern was also raised about the fact that for many years, as the Senate's highest ranking official he was third in line to assume the presidency. However, his supporters claimed that while he lacked physical stamina due to his age, that mentally he remained aware and attentive and that he maintained a very active work schedule in showing up for every floor vote. Thurmond did not seek re-election in 2002. Note that while he was the oldest serving Senator, he was not the longest lived individual to have served in the Senate. This honor is reserved for the scarcely known Cornelius Cole, who reached 102 in 1924.
Strom Thurmond left the Senate in January of 2003, as America's longest-serving senator. On June 26, 2003, he died at 9:45 p.m at a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield, South Carolina, where he had been living since retiring.
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