Strom Thurmond and the Death of Dixie

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It's
ironic, in the least funny of ways, that Jacksonville, Florida’s
new Mayor was inaugurated last July 1, the same day on which Strom
Thurmond was buried in his home state of South Carolina. Ironic
because as surely as Thurmond represented the past, Mr. Peyton represents
the future of the American south, a region that shall never again
have as staunch a defender as Strommy, the contrarian. Further ironic
because Strom died within hours of Maynard Jackson, who as the first
black mayor of Atlanta did something that no black man is likely
to do south of the Mason-Dixon again: win. The lesson to be learned
is that history only cares for those who win; losers are regarded
in spite of themselves.

I
will not pretend to be a Stromite; no bandwagon for me. In my political
youth I regarded Thurmond as I was taught, as a segregationist zealot
who somehow managed to stay around longer than any Senator in US
history. Kids now may learn that he may have had a black daughter,
although the woman herself denies it. History will record that he
never married a woman older than 2/3 his age, making his first wife
31 at the time. The rumor of his having made love to a woman as
she was being driven to the South Carolina death-house will never
find its way into official lore. (And why should it? It was an affair
that predated the offense for which she was executed – something involving
a dead husband.) It was not until the end was near, as he made his
exit from the Capitol after retiring in 2002, that I began to think
about and understand his relevance to the modern scene. Was he a
racist?

Liberals
hated Strom Thurmond because he was living proof of the fact that
sometimes you can win by losing. He took a principled stand in support
of a dying institution – the played-out Jim Crow model of social
organization that prevailed in the south roughly (and I do mean
roughly) from the time of James Garfield's assassination
to the time of John Kennedy's. In between came a transformation
in the methodology of American politics. Everyone lost a little
control in the fight for civil rights except the inhuman forces
of bureaucracy.

Black
folks used the only weapon readily available: triangulation. The
specter of a second federal takeover should have been enough to
integrate the south, but instead the whites blinked. Thurmond understood
that sovereignty is not too easily reclaimed after its abnegation,
which is one reason why he fought the federally-mandated integration
policies that began just after WWII.

Running
for President in 1948 as South Carolina's governor, he used segregation
as a tool to spur resistance to what he felt was the unconstitutional
trajectory of law. But he lost the Democratic nomination to Harry
Truman, arguably the worst President of all time, who defeated New
York governor Thomas Dewey. Would “we” have been better off under
Thurmond, as suggested last year by (then-) House Majority Leader
Trent Lott? Possibly. There might have been a race war, which might
have worked out better for America than what was won instead: a
military-industrial complex that all but dictates our foreign policy;
a drug war that escalates daily, having destroyed millions of American
families; a popular culture that glorifies self-destruction. Another
thing that goes unspoken is that if Thurmond had gotten the nomination,
he would have lost to Dewey, and we could absolutely be better off.

Strom's
biggest mistake, perhaps, was assuming that everyone in the south
was up to his exceptional cognitive standard. If they had been,
there would have probably not been a Vietnam war or a 9/11, because
they would have recognized the federal trap for what it really was:
a challenge to their better selves. The proper response to the federalization
of civil rights would have been to co-opt the movement by killing
Jim Crow themselves. Race relations are pretty damned good down
south, considering the history involved. The violence that characterized
the 1950s and ’60s could have been mitigated with some leadership
in the ’40s. Under such conditions, a Strom Thurmond presidency
would not have been so farfetched as late as 1972.

What
we might have had was a decent educational experience for all races,
instead of none, and a substantive economic base for minorities
that was not dependent on Federal funds to survive. We might have
black candidates who could win elections because they weren't chained
to an obsolete strategic model, like the one foisted upon Democrats
by the DLC. Hell, we might even be able to have an actual presence
in more than one party, or even our own party, whose influence was
an actual commodity to be bargained for, like normal.

Strom
Thurmond should be remembered as the last major politician who would
dare say in public that the American people on the local, state
and municipal level can and should handle their own internal business.
But he won't be remembered at all outside political circles, because
our nation, having been systematically isolated from our individual
responsibilities, has no collective memory anymore. Ironic.

Thurmond's
explanation of the '48 bid is a little more nuanced than what we
are typically told: “I did not risk my life on the beaches of Normandy
to come back to this country and sit idly by while a bunch of hack
politicians whittles away your heritage and mine. As for me, I intend
to fight.” Few Americans could be bothered to fight for anything
anymore, and it shows. Was he a racist? There is no reason not to
think so, but what does that matter anymore? Our fallen warriors
of all tribes merit respect and honor. He was something, without
reservation, and that can't be said for those who came after him,
or those who voted for them without thinking about what the hell
they were doing.

Odds
are that John Peyton's first, last and only job in politics will
be his term as Mayor of Jacksonville. And that's not necessarily
a bad thing, nor anything I desire for him; I just think he will
have had his fill before he is quite done, and then he will be.
He has stepped into a situation that is bigger and much more dangerous
than he is, and the only people who will escape its ramifications
intact will be those with nothing whatsoever to lose. That's not
me, and it's probably not you, either.

Strommy
knew the score. He got out just in time. RIP.

July
21, 2003

Shelton
Hull [send him mail] is
a columnist and writer based in Jacksonville, Florida. His work
has appeared in FolioWeekly, Counterpunch, Ink19 and Section
8 Magazine.


        
        

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