The Legend of Strom’s Remorse

A Washington lie is laid to rest.

For many years, there’s been a cherished Washington lie about Strom Thurmond. The lie is that Thurmond, though once a leading segregationist, later renounced that view as morally wrong. Trent Lott repeated the lie at his Dec. 13 press conference. Thurmond, he said,

came to understand the evil of segregation and the wrongness of his own views. And to his credit, he’s said as much himself. … By the time I came to know Strom Thurmond, some 40 years after he ran for president … he had long since renounced many of the views of the past, the repugnant views he had had.

It isn’t just conservatives who believe this fairy tale about sin, remorse, and redemption. The New York Times buys into it, too. David Halbfinger’s story in the Dec. 15 Times pointedly quoted the above passage from Lott’s remarks and then noted that “when asked to describe, and place in time, his own conversion from supporting segregation to repudiating it, Mr. Lott demurred.” (After further prodding, Lott said, “Way back there,” and attributed his change of mind to “Maturity,” “experience,” and “learning.”) The implication was that Lott was reluctant to render the heartfelt public apology that even mossy ol’ Strom served up many years ago.

But there never was any such expression of remorse or plea for forgiveness. Thurmond has neverpubliclyrepudiated his segregationist past, and with his 100th birthday and a Senate career behind him, it’s doubtful he ever will. The legend of Strom’s Remorse was invented, by common unspoken consent within the Beltway culture, in order to provide a plausible explanation why Thurmond should continue to hold power and command at least marginal respectability well past the time when history had condemned Thurmond’s most significant political contribution. Now that Thurmond is finally leaving Washington, the lie serves no further purpose and will fade away.

Is Chatterbox saying that the Strom of today (what’s left of him) is identical to the Strom who ran for president in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat platform? He is not. Clearly, Thurmond made shrewd accommodations late in life to changing times. In the 1970s, he became the first Southern senator to hire a black staff aide and to sponsor a black man for a federal judgeship. In the 1980s, he voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act (not because he agreed with it but in belated deference to “the common perception that a vote against the bill indicates opposition to the right to vote”). Strom also came to support making the birthday of Martin Luther King (about whom he’d once said, “King demeans his race and retards the advancement of his people”) a federal holiday. Thurmond didn’t do much else to promote equality among the races, but these token gestures were enough to demonstrate that he was no longer the 1948 Dixiecrat who had said,“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.” (Pedantic aside: Standard accounts of the speech render “Nigra” as “Negro,” but when listening to an NPR sound clip, Chatterbox wondered whether the word Thurmond uttered was “nigger.” In transcribing, Chatterbox gave Thurmond, who even in his worst days was not known publicly to throw that ugly epithet around, the benefit of the doubt. To judge for yourself, click here.)

Nor was Thurmond any longer the 1948 Dixiecrat who had invited audiences to ponder working for a company or belonging to a union forbidden by law to discriminate against blacks. “Think about the situation which would exist,” he said back then, “when the annual office party is held or the union sponsors a dance.”

Nor was Thurmond any longer the 1948 Dixiecrat who, when it was revealed that he had invited the governor of the Virgin Islands to visit him without knowing that he was black, hastily explained, “I would not have written him if I knew he was a Negro. Of course, it would have been ridiculous to invite him.”

The quotations cited above demonstrate that Thurmond has quite a lot to apologize for. But on those rare occasions when Thurmond can be induced to talk about the 1948 campaign at all, his first line of defense is usually to misrepresent it.

“In that race I was just trying to protect the rights of the states and the rights of the people,” Thurmond insisted to the Washington Post’s Jim Naughton in 1988. “Some in the news media tried to make it a race fight, but it was not that.” Around the same time, when Thurmond biographer Nadine Cohodas asked him about the “troops in the Army” speech, which is Thurmond’s only likely future entry in Bartlett’s, Thurmond responded with “incredulity.” When she finally “convinced” Thurmond that he’d really said it, all he would say was the following: “If I had to run that race again, some of the wording I used would not be used. I would word it differently.” Early in 1991, Thurmond observed, “When I grew up, the black people were just all servants. Now they’ve developed and developed and come up and we’ve got to acknowledge people when they deserve to be acknowledged, and the black people deserve to be acknowledged.” There’s no hint in any of these statements that Thurmond believes, much less will acknowledge, that his prior policies were morally wrong.

Thurmond’s much-hyped “reconciliation” with the black community over the years has come about not because Thurmond became a civil rights supporter—he clearly isn’t—but because Thurmond bought off a few key blacks with pork-barrel spending, political appointments, and the like. (Thurmond was always the kind of conservative who believed in the aggressive redistribution of wealth to his home state from the other 49.) It hardly made Thurmond the candidate of choice among South Carolina’s African-Americans, but it muted black opposition sufficiently to keep him from being voted out of the Senate.

Thurmond’s refusal to treat segregationism as anything worse than an outdated fashion may have helped convince Lott that he, too, would never have to make a similar accounting for his own (far milder) segregationist past. Conceivably Lott could have dodged that bullet just as easily as Thurmond did. But Lott wasn’t smart enough to grasp something Strom understood even in his dotage: If you don’t want to apologize for something you did that was truly awful, try not to discuss it at all.