Senator, lawyer, governor of South Carolina, and presidential nominee on the "Dixiecrat" ticket in 1948, James Strom Thurmond (born 1902) is a conservative politician who was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954.
Strom Thurmond was born on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina while Theodore Roosevelt was President. He attended schools there and upon graduating entered Clemson College, earning a B.S. degree in horticulture in 1923. For the next several years he taught high school near his boyhood home. He was elected to the Edgefield County Board of Education in 1924—the youngest member ever elected in South Carolina. During this same period, in addition to course work in psychology and other subjects, Thurmond enrolled in a correspondence course in law and passed the South Carolina bar in December 1930. Between 1929 and 1933, Thurmond served as superintendent of education for Edgefield County.
Political Career Begins in South Carolina
Thurmond was elected to the state senate from Edgefield County in 1933 and served until he became a circuit judge in the state in 1938. He was 35 at the time and was the youngest circuit court judge in South Carolina. His service on the bench was interrupted during World War II, during which he served as a pilot with the 82nd Airborne Division in Europe and the Pacific, returning with numerous decorations and the rank of lieutenant colonel. He remained on the circuit court until 1946, when he resigned and announced his candidacy for governor. He won the election that year over ten other candidates.
Thurmond in the National Spotlight
In opposition to President Truman's civil rights plank in the Democratic Party platform, Southern Democrats, known as Dixiecrats, left the 1948 party convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. They reconvened in Birmingham, Alabama, and nominated J. Strom Thurmond as their presidential candidate and Fielding L. Wright, governor of Mississippi, as their vice-presidential candidate. Thurmond and Wright carried four southern states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) and, with one additional elector from Tennessee, received a total of 39 Electoral College votes. Thurmond's split from the Democratic Party was never completely repaired, and party affiliation was significant again in his later career.
Senatorial Career Begins
As the governor of South Carolina is limited to one term of four years, when his term expired, Thurmond opted to challenge the incumbent Democratic senator from South Carolina, Olin T. Johnston. In a tight primary race in 1950, he lost the election. He subsequently opened a law practice in Aiken. In 1954 the senior senator from South Carolina, Burnet R. Mayfield, died, leaving the selection of his replacement to the State Democratic Committee. Overlooking Thurmond's strong showing against Johnston, the committee appointed a state senator to serve as Mayfield's replacement. Thurmond, at the encouragement of numerous individuals, decided to challenge the new appointee as a write-in candidate to succeed Mayfield. In a surprise election, Thurmond carried the state with 63 percent of the vote (and 37 of the 46 counties), again making political history as the first write-in candidate to win election as a United States senator.
As part of his election campaign, Thurmond stated he would resign if elected to the Senate so that the people of South Carolina could have a voice in electing its senatorial representative. In April 1956 Thurmond resigned his seat and stood for election in the Democratic primary, which he won without opposition. Thurmond was reelected to the Senate in 1960, 1966, 1972, 1978, 1984, 1990, and 1996. He challenged conventional wisdom by changing his political party (from Democratic to Republican) in 1964 to support the candidacy of Barry Goldwater for president of the United States. His 1966 election marked the first time since Reconstruction that a Southern Republican was elected to the Senate.
Surprisingly, Thurmond has faced little serious opposition in the elections in which he has participated, including the 1996 election. In a June 3, 1996 article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram his competitors, businessman Elliott Close and state Representative Harold Worley brought up the "age issue" indirectly, preferring to tell Thurmond that it was "time to come home." Thurmond shot back about his competiton's "lack of experience" and won with 53% of the vote. Ironically, Thurmond supports term limits. In a May 23, 1996 article in The Seattle Times he is quoted as saying, "It might be just as well for people to have a change in their congressman."
Age does seem to finally be taking its toll on a senator who prides himself on his physical prowess. A May 6, 1996 article in Newsweek reported that "the Senate is, in fact, Thurmond's nursing home." The report detailed the "special handling" and perks that were provided to keep Thurmond in office. In 1997, Thurmond passed two milestones when he became the longest serving senator in US history, surpassing the record of former Senator Carl Hayden of Arizona, and the oldest person to serve in Congress, surpassing Senator Theodore Green of Rhode Island. His election in 1996, at age 94, means that he will celebrate his 100th birthday while still in office. "I intend to serve out my term, " said Thurmond in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, and that he feels "like a million dollars."
The political career of Senator Thurmond is marked not only by its longevity; it is also noted for controversial opinions. Thurmond's presidential run on the Dixiecrat party ticket in 1948 and his term as governor were marked by segregationist policies. He holds a Senate record of 24 hours and 18 minutes of filibuster speaking to prevent a vote on the 1957 Civil Rights Bill. In 1964, He was involved in a fistfight with Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough who tried to drag Thurmond to his committee seat to vote on Civil Rights legislation. In later years, Thurmond tried to deflect criticism by stating in an interview in the Baltimore Sun: "It was my duty [as Governor of South Carolina] to enforce segregation laws. After the laws changed, I changed." Thurmond was the first Senator to hire an African American for his staff and voted in favor of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Despite this, he is still disliked by some African Americans. In 1996, Thurmond was one of three recipients of a lifetime contribution award from the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO), an organization comprised of presidents and ranking administrators of the nation's historic African American universities. When William Clay and Louis Stokes, two senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus found out that Thurmond was being honored, they refused to accept the award.
Committees and Chairmanships
Senator Thurmond served on the Armed Services, Appropriations, Banking and Currency, Commerce, Judiciary, and Veterans Affairs committees in the Senate and was the chair of the Judiciary Committee after the Republican Party became the majority party in 1981. When the Democrats captured the Senate in 1986, he became the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. He also served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate from 1981-1987 and began another term in 1995. He was also chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Thurmond married for the first time at age 47 to one of his 21 year-old secretaries, Jean Crouch. In 1968, at age 66, eight years after his first wife's death from cancer, he married Nancy Moore, a 25 year-old former Miss South Carolina. They had four children before amicably separating in 1991.
Further Reading on James Strom Thurmond
A biography of Strom Thurmond was written by Alberta Lachicotte, Rebel Senator (1967). A chapter in Robert Sherrill, Gothic Politics in the Deep South (1968) is devoted to him. He has published The Faith We Have Not Kept (1968) and, with David Cartright, Unions in the Military (1977). Additional information is available on the World Wide Web (circa 1997) at http: //www.senate.gov/member/sc/thurmond/general/direct.html and http: //www.ricommunity.com/scenic/politics/thurmond.htm