Strom Thurmond and the Death of Dixie

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.