Reviewed by Tom Terrill
Vol. 15, No. 3, 1993, pp. 30-32
Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change, Nadine Cohodas (Simon and Schuster, 1993, 574 pages).
This is a workmanlike, well researched, but narrowly conceived study of one of the most durable politicians in American history. Focusing almost entirely on the single issue of Thurmond and race relations and ignoring virtually every other aspect of his career, Cohodas produced a relentlessly monothematic book that sometimes reduces the reader to being something like a spectator at a Depression-era marathon dance. The Senator dances on and on and on to the same tune: states rights and the preservation of Jim Crow, at least until Jim Crow expires. Even if one assumes that the Senator’s political career is monothematic—and I don’t, that theme has more complexity than this narrative suggests.
Most readers of Southern Changes will find little that is new either in Cohodas’s narrative of Senator Thurmond’s long political career or in her story of the civil rights revolution. Her decision to follow Thurmond through his background that included Ben Tillman and “bloody” Edgefield County provides valuable context for her principal theme: the remarkable, as she sees it, transformation of Thurmond from arch-enemy of the civil rights movement to supporter of civil rights legislation and active supplicant of black votes.
Son of a comfortable, respected small town lawyer, Thurmond grew up in a household and community at-
tuned to politics. Enormously energetic and ambitious, Thurmond pursued his career in public life with an arresting single-mindedness—school superintendent, lawyer, state senator, state judge, governor, presidential candidate, and U.S. senator. The only person ever elected as a write-in candidate to the U.S. Senate, Thurmond has throughout demonstrated a remarkable capacity for feeling the public pulse and for hard work.
He also possessed blinkered vision. He claims be never hated African-Americans yet fought tenaciously to preserve Jim Crow. He denounced civil rights activists and their supporters, never acknowledged the heroism of the civil rights workers or forthrightly rejected the violent actions of their opponents, and even decried the civil rights movement as communistic. Cohodas does not blink about these matters. She bluntly discusses Thurmond’s wretched record on civil rights and, like others have, she wonders how Thurmond is able to claim he bore blacks no ill. Perhaps, no one, not even the Senator, can explain that.
Other puzzles about Thurmond remain, only a few of which are touched upon in Strom Thurmond. Why Thurmond went from being a moderate, even liberal governor to becoming one of Jim Crow’s most vocal and persistent defenders probably cannot be explained. Long a supporter of public education, Thurmond continued that commitment as governor. He favored creating kindergartens and nursery schools as well as trade schools and increasing the portion of public funding received by black schools. He also wanted to abolish the poll tax and adopt the secret ballot. He favored “‘equal rights for women, in every respect.'” How far he (or South Carolina) was willing to go at the time, however, was suggested by his specific recommendation that women be allowed to serve on jury duty. Cohodas may have the best answer to Thurmond’s retreat from liberalism: she thinks he may have become a captive to his 1948 presidential race which permanently labeled him as a reactionary segregationist.
Cohodas notes that Thurmond’s states’ rights stand rests upon two foundations: his belief that federal power is more threatening to individual freedom than is the power of state governments and his understanding of the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution as the guarantor of states’ rights. Thurmond obviously has long chosen to ignore the supremacy clause in the Constitution and the ambiguity of the Tenth Amendment. Cohodas does remark that Thurmond’s reading of the Tenth Amendment may be overly simplistic but she does not pursue that point, and she does not mention the supremacy clause or seem to be aware of the numerous readily available studies about the background and vagueness of the Tenth Amendment.
That the federal government presents a greater threat to individual liberty than do the state governments is, at the very least, an arguable proposition. The proposition should have been explored in this book. Similarly, Thurmond’s disinclination to see any connection between massive defense spending, which he has consistently supported, and expanding power in Washington warrants some discussion.
Broadening her focus would have allowed her to look at some striking aspects of Thurmond’s career and raise some very fundamental questions about that career. A wider angle of vision might have prevented her from the erroneous conclusion that the Senator in 1964 “had set in motion the factors that transformed the white South from a Democratic stronghold to a bastion of Republicanism.” Durable as he is, the Senator is not the Charles Atlas of Southern politics.
Why, after all his years in the Senate, has Thurmond never become a major figure in that body? Why has the “rebel Senator” become such a party-line Republican? Thurmond, an early leader in the Senate in maximizing
service to constituents, seems to have created a Senate office that resembles a highly efficient mail-order business. Many of us may wonder if that is an appropriate use for that high office. It is certainly a popular use. Why has Thurmond been so supportive of business interests and so hostile to organized labor? What great political risks has Thurmond been willing to take? Why did he favor Nixon over Reagan in 1968 and John Connally over Reagan in 1980? Finally, a broader focus might have prompted to do more than merely quote John West’s assessment of Thurmond’s basic motives. The former South Carolina governor said of Thurmond’s 1952 write-in campaign that it was “100 percent expediency. Strom has never been loyal to anyone but Strom.”
Thurmond’s greatest importance in American politics came from his break with the Democrats and his helping to build a Republican South. But there was no more discontinuity than continuity in that break. The crude racial politics of the Ben Tillman and the earlier Strom Thurmond may be dead, but color obviously still shows its power at election time. With the exception of Arkansas, President Clinton failed to get a majority of white votes in any Southern state in 1992. As has been the case with Senator Thurmond’s political career, race remains the dominant theme in the politics of the South.
Tom Terrill is professor of history at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. He is co-author of The American South: A History, published in 1991.