Joseph Crespino's "Strom Thurmond's America" looks at the long career of the tenacious, racist and politically influential senator from South Carolina.

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‘Strom Thurmond’s America’

by Joseph Crespino

Hill and Wang, 379 pp., $30

Strom Thurmond spent 100 years on this earth as a racist hypocrite, but also as the catalyst of a fundamental shift in United States politics, leading Southern voters into the Republican Party and providing much of the basis of modern conservatism, including perhaps traces of racism.

Or so the story goes.

Joseph Crespino, author of “Strom Thurmond’s America,” says it’s more complicated than that, more nuanced.

Yes, Thurmond was a racist hypocrite, fathering a daughter when he was 23 with one of his family’s black servants. He never acknowledged that publicly during a 70-year political career in which he railed against what he called the dangers of miscegenation, saying in a 1948 speech that there were “not enough troops to force southern people to break down segregation and admit the (expletive) race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”

That last piece of demagoguery came in a speech to the States’ Rights Democrats — the Dixiecrats — before Thurmond became their presidential candidate in 1948. Crespino makes clear that there was little nuance in how Southern politicians through much of the 20th century talked about race.

And yes, Thurmond, who was first elected in 1954 and who served for almost 50 years as the U.S. Senator from South Carolina, did have political influence that tied in with the growth of conservative political success in the United States. Certainly he had a right to regard himself as the reason the South is now solidly Republican electoral territory, an area that had been reliably Democratic since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Crespino, an associate professor of history at Emory University, details Thurmond’s abandonment of the Democratic Party, his instrumental role in helping Barry Goldwater capture five Southern states in his 1964 presidential defeat and Thurmond’s support for Richard Nixon in 1968 that prevented GOP voters from defecting to segregationist George Wallace’s third party.

But Crespino raises questions about how the conservative movement and Thurmond blended. It was mostly a matter of Thurmond and conservatives getting on the same page, speaking the same language: not segregation, but choice, law and order, family values, anti-communism and restraint of the federal government.

When he spoke in those terms, Thurmond found kinship with politicians from outside the South. Gerald Ford could, and did, say Thurmond was not an outright segregationist; Nixon could, and did, say Thurmond was not a racist.

The elements of modern conservatism were a part of Strom Thurmond’s America, and not just in the South. If they had not been, it’s doubtful Thurmond would have attained the national prominence and influence he did.

The story of Thurmond’s life is complete and well told in Crespino’s capable hands, and he fits this calculating Southern politician into the changes in American political life in the 20th century. What Thurmond left behind after his death in 2003 is a personal legacy scarred by racism and hypocrisy.

Crespino is less successful in identifying the traces of racism left behind in the GOP or the conservative movement. He is selective in whom he chooses to demonstrate this — Trent Lott and Lee Atwater, for example. But while he can legitimately show that Thurmond and his politics were embraced in the past, that’s not proof that this continues in the present.