27 June 2003
In the Sixties, when I lived in South Carolina, he was still cited in the papers as "J. Strom Thurmond," rather like J. Random User or J. Skulking Bushwhack, but in popular parlance he was always just Strom; like Cher or Madonna or Sting, he was easily identifiable without resorting to a surname.
And in the first half of that decade, he was still a Democrat he jumped the aisle and joined the GOP in 1964 and still young enough (50s) to make you think he was capable of another 24-hour filibuster to match the one he'd done in '57. I wasn't sure what to make of Strom. The headmistress at the Academy for the Smug, when she wasn't swinging the pickaxe she'd borrowed from Lester Maddox, was quick to assure us that Strom was a man of conviction and strength, standing tall against the sea of darkies that threatened to inundate us all. Perhaps it was that very assurance that made me doubtful: even then I was given to question authority, and I didn't see any evidence that we were about to be overrun by anyone or anything, with the possible exception of Beatlemania.
Then came desegregation, and it came hard. I'd moved to a Catholic school, which officially took no position on the matter but which quietly closed its "separate-but-equal" facilities during one long, hot summer, and which contributed, again unofficially, staffers to the occasional civil-rights march. The world was changing, and people called out to Strom to make it stop.
It's said by some that Strom's eventual retreat from racism was purely opportunistic, motivated by nothing more than a glimpse at the handwriting on the wall. And maybe it was at first, but I don't think so. I left the South for the prairie after high school, and the lines were drawn no less starkly in Oklahoma than in Orangeburg; desegregation came hard everywhere. It was at about this point that I figured out that while the South's "peculiar institution" had been indeed truly evil and it was a Good Thing that a war was fought to rid the nation of it, the South had done a better job over the next century of getting over it. Maybe there were guys like Trent Lott who still yearned for those days of separation, but I didn't remember any guys like that.
So Strom was flawed, as are we all. His awakening, if that's what it was, came rather late, long after the damage was done. Others in a similar position could have done a blatantly public one-eighty, could have sought the approbation of media settled into somnolence, could have tried to hook up with Beyoncé. Strom shrugged. "You know where I stand," he'd say, and well, we knew where he stood, way back when, but we also knew he didn't have to stay there. In the South, you learn, and you go on. And Strom, first and foremost, was a man of the South.
TrackBack: 2:31 PM, 28 June 2003
» That 100-year-old dead white racist guy from Too Much To Dream
Charles G. Hill at Dustbury.com has the most even-handed and, to my mind, the best statement on the late Strom......[read more]