Strom Thurmond's America

Joseph Crespino

Hill and Wang

On December 5, 1902, John William Thurmond and his wife, Eleanor Gertrude, of Edgefield, South Carolina, welcomed the arrival of James Strom Thurmond, their second son. The child was born and raised a son of Edgefield. At the turn of the twentieth century, that accident of birth was sufficient to provide a politically minded white boy with a sense of heritage and calling.
Edgefield County was the home of ten governors and lieutenant governors of South Carolina. It has also bequeathed some of the more legendary figures in southern history. Preston Brooks, the South Carolina representative who in 1856 viciously assaulted the antislavery advocate Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate, was a native. So was the U.S. senator Andrew Butler, Brooks’s relative, whom Sumner had allegedly insulted in a speech several days earlier, which had prompted Brooks’s attack. Two leaders of the Texans at the Alamo, James Bonham and William Barret Travis, were from Edgefield, as was “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, one of the most infamous demagogues of the Jim Crow South.
In a state known for producing passionate, quick-tempered leaders of lost causes, Edgefield stands out. William Watts Ball, the longtime editor of Charleston’s News and Courier, immortalized Edgefield as a quintessential southern locale. “Their virtues were shining, their vices flamed,” Ball wrote. “They were not careful reckoners of the future, sometimes they spoke too quickly, and so acted, yet in crises an audacity that might have been called imprudence by milder men made them indispensable to the state.” Another encomium from Ball so succinctly summarized the mythology of Edgefield that the town elders had it painted on the side of a store facing the village square: “It has had more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers, daredevils, than any county of South Carolina, if not of any rural county of America.”1
Established in 1785, Edgefield County has always bridged the up-country and low country, the most salient division in South Carolina politics dating from the American Revolution to the demise of the white primary in the mid-twentieth century. The low country experienced its heyday in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dominated by trade in Charleston and large-scale rice, sugar, and indigo plantations. In the late nineteenth century, the up-country became one of the first southern areas to embrace industrialization, primarily cotton mills, though more diverse industries followed after World War II.
Renowned for its record of political leadership, Edgefield has also been notorious for its violence. In its earliest days as a frontier society, brutal confrontations between white settlers and Native Americans were a way of life in sparsely settled areas of western Carolina. In the antebellum period, law officers were few, and vigilantism was commonplace. So too was dueling. Yet a new chapter was written in Edgefield’s bloody history during Reconstruction.
The county was a hotbed of violence in 1876, the year that Wade Hampton and the “Red Shirts” overthrew the Republicans, restoring Democratic rule and white supremacy. The violence began in Edgefield County on July 4, 1876, the hundredth anniversary of American independence. A confrontation between African American militiamen and several local white rifle clubs led by the former Confederate general Matthew Butler turned bloody. When the black men took refuge in their “armory,” a room above a Hamburg storefront, white men massed in the street below. Shots were fired back and forth. After one white man was killed, the mob opened fire with artillery and drove the militiamen from their stronghold. About thirty black militiamen were captured. Five were executed on the spot. The rest were eventually turned loose and fired upon as they fled; at least two more were killed.2
Wade Hampton, the Democratic candidate for governor, maintained an aura of racial benevolence, promising to serve as “the Governor of the whole people.”3 Yet it was the Red Shirts’ coordinated campaign of terror that was the key to Democratic success. Matthew Butler joined with Martin Gary, a fellow Confederate hero who had moved to Edgefield to practice law, to mimic the reign of violence and intimidation that had allowed white Mississippians to restore white supremacy in that state the previous year. On Election Day, Martin Gary delivered a rousing speech to some fifteen hundred Red Shirts who had gathered at Oakley Park, the stately antebellum mansion he owned in Edgefield—just 150 yards from where Strom Thurmond would be born, twenty-six years later.
White vigilantism against African Americans continued unabated in the decades that followed Hampton’s campaign. It became an integral part of the crusade to disenfranchise black voters, an effort that reached its apotheosis in the new constitution of 1895. By the time Strom Thurmond was born, violence at the polls had become relatively rare only because white political power had become so firmly established. White vigilantism against blacks, however, continued well into the twentieth century. In roughly the first two decades of Thurmond’s life—from 1904 to 1918—a lynching took place in South Carolina, on average, every four months. This, of course, accounted only for murders that were actually reported. Many were never discovered, and white men regularly killed blacks with impunity. When local prosecutors went to the trouble of filing charges, whites easily won acquittal from juries of their peers.4
Benjamin Tillman, the man who more than any other embodied the racist violence of the era, was a close family friend of the Thurmonds’. Tillman was born near Trenton, just south of the town of Edgefield. He rose to prominence in state politics and was elected governor in 1890 as the defender of the small farmer. Though a stalwart agrarian reformer, he was careful to appropriate populism for South Carolina Democrats, avoiding the biracial coalitions that characterized populist movements in some southern states. In 1894, he replaced Matthew Butler in the U.S. Senate, where he served until his death in 1918. He was an influential advocate of the 1895 constitution, which replaced the Reconstruction-era document and helped secure the disenfranchisement of African Americans. Nationally, he became well-known as a regular source of intemperate racist outbursts.5
Ben Tillman was disreputable in his own day, but to later generations he would become one of the most villainous figures from a disgraceful era in the nation’s past. To the young Strom Thurmond he was a towering, irascible figure, the biggest, most important man he had ever met. Strom recalled as a boy his father loading up the family in a wagon to travel the six miles to Senator Tillman’s place near Trenton. His father told him to walk up to the “stern” Tillman, offer his hand, and introduce himself. “What do you want?” Tillman asked. “I want to shake hands with you,” the boy answered, refusing to be intimidated. “Well, why in the hell don’t you shake then?” Strom took his hand and gave it as manly a shake as he could.6
Thurmond loved to tell this story of his first political handshake, but by far the most important influence on the boy came not from the man whose hand he shook but from the man who stood nearby, his father, John William Thurmond, known locally as Will. Thurmond’s mother was a beloved and revered figure, the daughter of a prominent family in Edgefield, and as an adult Strom would regularly write affectionate letters to her. Yet Will Thurmond was the dominant figure in the lives of his children.
Strom was the second oldest of six, three boys and three girls. It was from Will that Thurmond developed his obsession with good health. The family grew its own grain, which Will would have delivered to a local mill to be ground into whole wheat flour. Strom continued the practice into his seventies, buying bran directly from a mill. While his brothers would both become doctors in Augusta, Strom inherited his father’s love of politics. Will Thurmond regularly brought home for lunch or dinner politicians traveling through Edgefield, and Strom would accompany his father on work trips to Columbia. He recalled watching the general assembly from the gallery and meeting the members of the South Carolina Supreme Court, a body with which Will sometimes sat as a special judge. “He was my idol,” Thurmond said of his father. “I tried to imitate him as much as I could.”7 Strom hung an enlarged photograph of Will in his Senate office and made copies of a letter his father had written to him in 1923, when he graduated from college. Titled “Advice,” the letter listed rules to live by:
Remember your God.
Take good care of your body and tax your nervous system as little possible.
Obey the laws of the land.
Be strictly honest.
Associate only with the best people, morally and intellectually.
Think three times before you act once and if you are in doubt, don’t act at all.
Be prompt on your job to the minute.
Read at every spare chance and think over and try to remember what you have read.
Do not forget that “skill and integrity” are the keys to success.
Visitors to his Senate office received a copy as tokens from Thurmond, along with pens, buttons, and other political knickknacks.9
Born in Edgefield County in 1862, Will Thurmond was the son of Mary Jane Felter Thurmond, originally of New Orleans, and George Washington Thurmond. A veteran of three wars—the Indian Wars, the Mexican War, and the Civil War, in which he served as a corporal in the Confederate army—G. W. Thurmond was present at Appomattox when Lee surrendered to Grant. Strom’s grandmother, however, was the source of Will’s “ambition and his ideals” and was responsible for the bulk of his education.
By his late twenties and early thirties Will Thurmond was one of the most promising young men in Edgefield. He had attended the University of South Carolina for one year before studying law in the office of John C. Sheppard, one of the ten South Carolina governors to have hailed from Edgefield. Passing the bar in 1888 with distinction, Thurmond was immediately elected county attorney. In 1894 and 1895 he represented Edgefield in the general assembly and in 1896, with the backing of the U.S. senator Ben Tillman, who recognized the young Thurmond as a political comer, he won election as solicitor of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which included Columbia. Thurmond would later serve as Tillman’s personal lawyer, and the two men remained close political allies. During Woodrow Wilson’s administration, Tillman used the full measure of his guile to have Thurmond appointed U.S. attorney for one of two federal districts in the state. Tillman’s biographer baroquely described the appointment as a “petal” on Tillman’s “odious rose of spoliation.” Indeed, Will Thurmond was no easy man to have had appointed. His bright early prospects had been diminished by an incident in 1897, an encounter that forever altered his life’s trajectory and would have a profound influence on his son’s life as well.10
In the late afternoon of Wednesday, March 24, 1897, the thirty-four-year-old Thurmond shot and killed a man named Willie Harris just off the main square in Edgefield. The two men had gotten into an argument over a political appointment that Harris’s father had not received, and Harris blamed Thurmond for the slight. A newspaper account noted Harris’s “very hot language,” though one onlooker described the exchange as innocuous and another as “friendly … I saw nothing to get mad about.”11 No one disputed, however, that Willie Harris had drunk too much whiskey.
There were conflicting reports of the shooting, one by Thurmond himself and the other by the lone eyewitness, a Captain Dubose, the owner of the hotel where Harris was staying, who was walking with the victim at the time of his death. In his deposition, Will Thurmond provided lurid details of Harris’s profanity-laced invective and threatening gestures, including waving a large knife, in the Lynch drugstore. Thurmond testified that Harris declared “I have a damn good knife and a Colt’s pistol in my pocket” before walking out of the store. He returned shortly thereafter to wave the knife in front of Thurmond’s face.12
According to Thurmond, Harris later walked by his office and continued the harassment. Thurmond claimed that during the exchange Harris sprang as if to rush the door and assault him. Thurmond kicked Harris backward. When Harris threw his right hand under his coat, Thurmond fired, killing him with a shot to the sternum.13
Captain Dubose’s account was less elaborate. He had walked a few steps ahead of Harris but had stopped to listen to Harris’s heated denunciation of Thurmond. Dubose’s recollection of the conversation accorded generally with Thurmond’s, but the testimonies diverged as to Harris’s actions. Harris never sprang on Thurmond, according to Dubose, nor did Thurmond kick him backward. Harris simply yelled at Thurmond, “You are a low, dirty scoundrel,” after which Thurmond pulled his pistol and fired.14
Reports that Solicitor Thurmond, one of South Carolina’s chief law-enforcement officials, had committed murder caused a scandal. “How can we hope that the people will respect the laws and human life,” editorialized the Baptist Courier, “when our officers, sworn to execute and enforce the laws, put such a low estimate upon human life?”15 “The pity of it!” declared the Carolina Spartan. “Solicitor Thurmond stands no more chance of conviction for killing Harris than the average Edgefield man who shoots a negro.”16 Speculation turned to whether Thurmond would show up for the next term of court in Columbia to fulfill his duties as solicitor.17
An interim official was appointed until Will Thurmond’s murder trial in August in the Edgefield Courthouse, only yards away from the scene of the murder. It was a small-town spectacle. The attorney general of South Carolina appeared in person to lead the prosecution. Joining him at the behest of the Harris family was the hero of Hamburg, General Matthew Butler. Defending Thurmond was the ex-governor John C. Sheppard, in whose office Thurmond had sat for the bar, along with J. H. Tillman, Pitchfork Ben’s nephew, who five years later would be tried and acquitted himself for the murder of the Columbia State newspaper editor N. G. Gonzales.18
Despite the luminaries on hand, the trial itself was uneventful. The jury took a mere thirty minutes to determine that Thurmond had acted in self-defense. The verdict, as reported by the Edgefield Advertiser, was “according to general expectation.”19 An account in The State, however, mocked the proceedings: “Poor Will Harris, like many another murdered man, sleeps unavenged under the sod of Edgefield. Solicitor Thurmond can now return to his official duties in the prosecution of murderers with a spirit purified for the task and a reputation so enhanced by his experience as to make doubly effective his appeals to juries to vindicate the law against murder.”20
The murder of Will Harris did not diminish Will Thurmond’s standing among his fellow townspeople, yet it stunted his career in state politics. The election returns of 1902 left no doubt. Thurmond was one of three candidates in the Democratic primary for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina’s Second District. Despite a strong showing in Edgefield and Saluda counties, Will did not even make the runoff election.21 It would have been a humiliating experience for someone for whom expectations had been so high just a few years earlier. Will Thurmond would never run for elective office again. His only consolation was the birth in December of his second son, James Strom, a child that his wife, Eleanor Gertrude, had carried through the sweltering summer months of Will’s political evisceration.
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Strom Thurmond came of age at a time when the heroic memory of the Red Shirt campaign of 1876 was a totem for white South Carolinians, one invoked for political effect by Ben Tillman’s generation. When opponents would try to tweak Tillman by questioning his lack of service in the Civil War, Tillman responded, “I have a little record of 1876 … and have had a little to do with managing elections.”22
Will Thurmond took part in such rituals as well, recounting his own record of 1876, when the state had been saved from Republican rule. At age fourteen he had helped guard the poll at the Shaw and McKie’s Mill precinct in Edgefield County during the presidential election. “There were six or seven negroes to one white man,” he recalled. “I had been taught to handle a long pistol for the occasion, and the boys of my age and all white men of the neighborhood, young and old, were at that precinct determined to carry the election for white supremacy.” Thurmond added: “I believe that the Negroes should be fairly and justly treated, but the Caucasian race discovered, conquered and brought civilization to this country, and I don’t think any other race should be permitted to participate in the politics of this country.”23
This was the unapologetic public testimony of the man who had the strongest influence on Strom Thurmond’s life and career. These kinds of memories passed on from his father, along with the lessons learned from his Edgefield heritage, prepared Thurmond for a long discipleship in the cult of the Lost Cause. Yet in the years that Strom Thurmond came of age, one need not have been a son of Will Thurmond’s or a resident of Edgefield to be instructed in the folly of Reconstruction and racial equality. In early-twentieth-century America, the mythology of the Lost Cause had transmogrified into a national conventional wisdom. The memory of the iniquitous postwar period made possible the reconciliation of North and South.
White Americans in both regions could agree on a simple formula: the South had lost the war, but the North had lost the peace. Slavery had been a mistake, defeated southerners could admit, but gracious northerners conceded the sin of trying to foist social equality on the prostrate South. In the violent restoration of white rule, southerners had simply acted as any brave, self-respecting people would. It was the consensus confirmed by distinguished professors at the nation’s leading universities. They wrote the definitive histories of the period and sent out waves of graduate students to record in detail the alleged graft, greed, and incompetence of the coalition of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and coloreds. At the reunions held at the grand old sites of the unfortunate conflict, aged veterans shook hands across old battle lines. The errors had evened out. All was forgiven.24
In 1915, this national mythology received its most audacious rendering—replete with engaging romantic subplots, a traveling orchestra, and a state-of-the-art publicity campaign—with the release of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the grandest cinematic creation of its era. Based on the novel The Clansman by the North Carolina native Thomas Dixon Jr., the film was set in a fictional South Carolina up-country town called Piedmont. Recounting in lurid detail the tragedy of the war and the evils of “Radical Reconstruction,” it told of heroic southern white men who did not cower at the sight of the oppressor but defended their womenfolk, their homeland, and their way of life. Yet the white men of Piedmont did not merely restore sanity to a region turned upside down. They gave birth to a nation, one symbolized in the film’s final scene by the double marriage of the sons and daughters of two families, one northern, one southern.25
The film played to packed audiences in Columbia in the fall of 1915 and again in the winter of 1916 in both Columbia and Augusta. Whether Strom Thurmond ever saw the film as a teenager is unknown.26 His family certainly had the means to attend. Advertisements in The State where nationally known ministers stressed how “a boy can learn more true history” from watching the film were sure to have appealed to Will Thurmond, who was always mindful of his children’s education and advancement.27 Yet regardless of whether young Strom ever saw the film, he knew the story because it was the valorous tale in which he had been instructed since birth, the story of what The State described as white South Carolinians’ “heroisms, the triumphs of their own families, their own forebears.”28
However tempting it is to look back on Thurmond’s childhood in Edgefield as an education into a regional heritage distinct from a national one, a tutelage into a world of heroes and traditions set apart from the cultural and political touchstones of America, that was simply not the case. The actual experience as the young Thurmond would have lived it was never so subversive of the national narrative. The history he learned was of a place and a people that had grown up together with the nation itself.
He would have been told that Edgefield and surrounding areas experienced savage battle during the Revolutionary War and that the town and the county were founded in 1785, only two years after the war itself ended.29 As a young man, he walked among the Confederate graves in Willowbrook Cemetery, directly behind the Baptist church that his family attended, reading the names of soldiers who had died defending their home in the War Between the States. And he learned too about the tragedy of what came after that war, the folly of Reconstruction and the glory of Redemption that had set the nation on solid footing once again. In this way, the history that young Strom Thurmond learned about his people and his place in the world was never simply a part of the South’s history. It was for him always a part of American history.
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Strom Thurmond’s earliest and most enduring memory of politics dated back to 1912, when he was a nine-year-old boy attending a political debate with his father. It would become Thurmond’s political just-so story.30 The race was between the incumbent governor, Cole Blease, and Ira B. Jones, a former Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives and the chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. A picture of Ira Jones and Will Thurmond is preserved in Strom’s personal papers at Clemson. Attached is a typewritten caption: “J.S.T. decided on this day to some day run for Gov. of S.C.”31
To a reporter who inquired about the event in 1961, Thurmond told how “the best man, so I thought, was unable to protect himself in a debate.” He elaborated on the scene in subsequent years, providing the most detailed account during an interview in 1980:
They put up a platform for them to speak on and brought a big pitcher of water. Jones, he made a good talk, a literary talk. But he just didn’t stir the people. Well, Cole Blease was a fiery kind of fellow and a great orator. You could see people who were not really the thinking people who were carried away by the speech. I could see then the influence that he was going to have over the state for being such a good speaker … After hearing him speak, I knew that I was going to run for governor. And I was going to learn to speak, and I would never let a man do me like Blease did Jones that day.32
Will Thurmond and Jones were longtime friends who had served together in the general assembly, and in 1912 Thurmond worked for Jones as his campaign manager. Jones was the figurehead and Thurmond one of the leading figures in a coalition of middle-class business and professional interests, the “town folk,” which included newspaper editors, ministers, other middle-class reformers, and, by 1912, a relatively mellowed Ben Tillman and much of South Carolina’s political establishment.33
What united them all was their opposition to Bleasism, an eponym that covered an array of alleged ignorance, illegality, and anarchism. Blease’s opponents derided him as an embarrassment to the state. Blease scoffed at progressive programs in education and health, recklessly replaced experienced state officials with incompetent friends, stoked the impudence of unschooled laborers against established local and state leaders, and made indiscriminate use of the governor’s pardoning power. He also openly advocated lynching as a means of solving South Carolina’s racial problems. Thurmond’s cohorts were no less committed to white supremacy, but they chafed at such brazenness, which they believed tarred the state in the eyes of powerful outside interests.34
The larger forces that gave rise to Bleasism were rooted in an economic transformation that was remaking society and politics in South Carolina. Independent yeoman farmers who a generation earlier had worked the land were increasingly drawn into the newly expanding cotton mill industry in the Piedmont. In 1880 there were only a dozen mills in South Carolina. Twenty years later there were 115; by 1920 there were 184.35 The earlier generation of poor white farmers had made up the bedrock support of Pitchfork Ben, who had denounced the monopolistic interests that kept down the price of cotton and had reassured their sense of dignity as proud, free white men. What Tillman had done for the yeomen, Blease did for the mill hands, the “lintheads,” the unpropertied who moved with their families by the thousands into mill villages dotting the Carolina up-country. Town leaders worried over the influence of these uneducated masses and the power of their “bloc vote” in swinging elections.36 The term would become synonymous with the “black vote” in the civil rights era—and it was the bane of Strom Thurmond’s political existence—but in this earlier period the dangerous foreign element in South Carolina politics was working-class white laborers.
These tensions came to a head in Blease’s reelection campaign in 1912, one of the stormiest and most bitterly contested campaigns in a state famous for them. The heyday of Blease’s influence in state politics—from his election as governor in 1910 through World War I—witnessed a notable rise in voter participation rates, but none surpassed the 1912 election, when 80.2 percent of the registered electorate went to the polls.37 Despite having the support of the state’s most influential citizens, Jones’s attack on Blease’s “anarchy” could not match the withering derision of his opponent. Presenting Jones as a tool of elite financial interests, Blease excoriated him above all for failing to defend white womanhood. He charged Jones with having endeavored “to force social equality among the white ladies and children of this country, with the negro men.” He berated Jones for voting against a separate railroad carriage law for whites and blacks, a vote that Blease charged was due to Jones’s being in thrall to greedy railroad interests. Blease titillated the crowd with stories of “white ladies, your wives, your mothers, your daughters and your sweethearts,” being forced to ride in coaches “right next to and sometimes jammed up against a big black Negro wench, or a stinking Negro buck.”38
Blease’s scorn was not limited to Jones. As Jones’s campaign manager, Will Thurmond himself came under fire. Blease nicknamed Thurmond “Pussyfoot Bill,” a reference to his alleged behind-the-scenes political manipulation, an insult that suggested he did not come out in the open and address his enemies like a man. He accused Thurmond of funneling corporate cash into Jones’s campaign, evidence that Blease used to affirm his status as the candidate of “the people,” and he pointed to Thurmond’s trial on murder charges years earlier to undercut Jones’s criticisms of his pardon record.39
The candidates did not meet in Edgefield that year, so the meeting in Saluda, about twenty miles from Edgefield where Will Thurmond kept a branch law office, is likely the one that Strom attended.40 Twenty-five hundred people were on hand. So many of them were pro-Blease that Jones accused his opponent of packing the crowd with “Blease howlers.” One of Strom Thurmond’s fellow townsmen shot back, “Yes, there’s a hundred from Edgefield here.” Watching Jones stumble along, unable to rouse his own supporters, must have been a painful experience. The judge’s halting, ineffective speechmaking only fed Blease’s mockery of his opponent. “What is his claim to be governor?” Blease asked the crowd. “He hasn’t presented a single reason for his election. He can’t even make a speech.”41
Jones was “absolutely a child in Blease’s hands,” lamented Ben Tillman in a letter to Will Thurmond late in the campaign.42 The situation became so dire that an aged Tillman, who had resisted endorsing Jones out of fear of losing Blease supporters in his own Senate reelection campaign, issued a last-minute endorsement, once it was clear his own race was not in jeopardy.43 But it was too late for Jones, who made a decent showing but could not unseat Blease.
Strom Thurmond recalled the debate between Blease and Jones as his first lesson in political self-defense, in the importance of being skilled in the verbal warfare of the stump. Yet Jones’s humiliation was always matched in Thurmond’s memory by Blease’s mastery and the power it gave him with the masses. In 1912, at age nine, Thurmond encountered up close at an impressionable age the power of the demagogue, an experience both fearsome and alluring.
Thurmond himself drew on this background thirty-six years later, when as a presidential candidate he stoked the racist resentments of the States’ Rights Democrats. It was in Birmingham in July 1948 that Thurmond offered his own form of Bleasism, swearing that there were not enough “troops in the army” to force southerners to admit the “nigger race” into their theaters, swimming pools, and churches.44 It was Bleasism that he drew upon during the twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes he spent denouncing the civil rights bill of 1957, as well as in other firebrand orations he gave in the massive resistance era, such as a 1958 speech declaring “total and unremitting war on the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional usurpations and unlawful arrogations of power.”45
Yet Thurmond also remembered the disdain of his father and other townsfolk for Blease, how Blease mocked the attitudes and opinions of the “thinking people.” It was one reason perhaps why later in his career Thurmond would embrace a kind of magical thinking about his adventures in demagoguery, denying them outright or attempting to rationalize them into something other than mere Bleasism.
For the rest of his career the poles between which Strom Thurmond’s political ambitions would swing were established in that 1912 race. The intelligent, honorable Jones was also hamstrung and toothless. Blease, despicable as he was to Thurmond’s father and his circle of “respectable” leaders, was stylish, clever, and formidable. It would seem that the fair-minded and the principled became vaguely commingled in Thurmond’s mind with political weakness, and perhaps too with his father’s failed ambitions, while what others decried as illicit and demagogic, Thurmond knew to be something else as well—a key to men’s fears and passions, a path to the influence and renown that his father always longed for but never achieved.
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Family lore records the tale of an obstinate young Strom who climbed out on the roof to avoid a whipping from his mother, yet other stories testify to his maturity and work ethic. When a neighboring farmer was called away to World War I, the fourteen-year-old Thurmond bought his crop and farmed it for him. Rather than completing another grade of high school to be added the following year, Thurmond headed off to college at the age of sixteen.46
He attended Clemson, which had been founded in 1889 to educate the state’s rising generation in the ways of progressive agriculture and the mechanical sciences. The brainchild of Ben Tillman, the school’s founding was part of an assault on the state’s “aristocratic oligarchy” that Tillman believed was incubated in the classical liberal arts education offered at the state university in Columbia.47 Thurmond studied agriculture, participated in the military training required of all students, and ran cross-country. He was one of several track team members who completed the twenty-mile run to the nearby town of Anderson. Late in his career, a journalist would pick up on the image of Thurmond as the long-distance runner as a metaphor for his political persona. Slow and plodding, Thurmond wore down opponents not by skill or intelligence but by doggedness and determination.48
After college, Thurmond returned to Edgefield, where he taught high school for several years before running for county superintendent of education. He was twenty-five years old when he was elected in September 1928. As a college graduate and the son of the county’s wealthiest and most respected attorney, Thurmond was part of what amounted to the aristocracy in a poor rural county. There was officially no urban population in Edgefield because no town included more than twenty-five hundred residents, the census-defined threshold for urban areas. The total population was just under twenty thousand residents. Two-thirds of that was African American, and the vast majority of them lived out in the county and worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Across the South, the average tenant family received an annual income of only $73 per person. Sharecroppers earned about ten cents per day.49
It was a sign of Thurmond’s initiative and broad-mindedness that his signature effort as superintendent was to start a county-wide literacy campaign. The 1920 census had revealed that Edgefield had an illiterate population of 140 whites and some 3,000 blacks. Thurmond instituted literacy classes for whites and blacks both, but there were far more black students. By the winter of 1930, he had organized forty night classes for black Edgefieldians who could not get away from work during the day, each class with about twenty students. There was not enough money in the budget to pay for an organizer, so Thurmond did the work himself.50
Deeply as he believed in the value of self-improvement, Thurmond never intended to make a career as an educator. In his first year on the job he moved his office as superintendent next door to Will Thurmond’s law office, where he began an informal course of study. Renowned for his legal abilities, Will Thurmond would later author Thurmond’s Key Cases, a casebook of state law that became standard reading for law students in South Carolina. Many aspiring lawyers would have leapt at the opportunity to study under Will Thurmond, yet Strom came along at a time when the modern practice of attending three years of law school was increasingly standard. The fact that Thurmond stayed in Edgefield to study with his father rather than attend the law school in Columbia showed his unusual ambition. As he would explain years later, the advantage of studying at home was that he could continue his work as school superintendent and pack what normally would have been three years of study into one.51
There were disadvantages as well. It was a pragmatist’s training in the law, as well as a nepotistic introduction into the clubby world of the South Carolina bar. Thurmond’s legal education was completely lacking, however, in broader philosophical training. For at least one political rival, the lacuna showed up in Thurmond’s later tenure as a judge. “I thought Strom was the weakest circuit judge we had since Reconstruction,” recalled Thomas Pope, a lawyer and former Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives.52
Pope pointed to Thurmond’s lack of formal education, yet he did not call him a dullard. Thurmond was adept at finding narrow grounds on which to argue a case, which served him well in his law practice both in the 1930s and in the early 1950s in the interim between his governorship and his Senate career. But the facility did not translate well to either the bench or the Senate hearing room. In this latter forum, Thurmond could often be found doggedly following limited, technical lines of questioning, sometimes to the frustration of witnesses and colleagues alike.
If Thurmond had any self-doubts about his training or abilities, he kept them well hidden. Only those closest to him sensed his insecurity. In the mid-1960s, Thurmond began employing a Ph.D. on his Senate staff. Two former staffers who held doctoral degrees recall how Thurmond would grandly introduce them to his fellow senators, emphasizing the honorific, often to the staffer’s embarrassment.53 For a man whose office walls bore no sheepskins testifying to his professional training or accomplishments, the titles seem to have mattered.
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Another prominent son of Edgefield came to know Strom Thurmond from his earliest days and chronicled his ascent. Francis Butler Simkins, who would become a distinguished southern historian and the author of the definitive biography of Benjamin Tillman, was just five years older than Strom. For several years the Simkinses and the Thurmonds were next-door neighbors on Columbia Road. Will Thurmond and McGowan Simkins, Francis Butler’s father, were both lawyers and something of political rivals. In 1912, when Will Thurmond managed Ira Jones’s campaign, McGowan Simkins was Edgefield’s most prominent Blease supporter.54
Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s, Francis Butler Simkins sat down to write a gossipy, thinly fictionalized memoir about growing up in Edgefield, or “Litchwood” as it appears in his text. It was never published and is preserved today only in Simkins’s personal papers at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, where he taught for most of his career. The untitled manuscript is fascinating for the light it sheds on Simkins’s onetime neighbors, who appear with the pseudonyms Hog Stoopes and his son Stone. These “fictional” characters follow so exactly the real-life accomplishments of Will and Strom Thurmond as to make the pseudonyms superfluous; at one point Simkins even slips and refers to Hog Stoopes as Will Stoopes. Despite some minor errors in facts—Simkins writes, for example, that Stone Stoopes joined the bench in 1939, when actually Thurmond joined it in 1938—the manuscript provides an intimate perspective on Will and Strom Thurmond and Edgefield.55
Simkins’s treatment of Hog Stoopes was relatively generous. Describing Hog as “cold-blooded” in his law practice, “learned in the technicalities of the law without the remotest interest in justice or in polite culture,” Simkins also pronounced him deserving of the honorary degree awarded him by the University of South Carolina. Hog was “Litchwood’s man of moderation and charity” who “refused to speak unkindly of anyone,” the town’s “most popular citizen for forty years.”
Yet the distinctive quality that emerges from Simkins’s portrait of Hog Stoopes was that of a remarkably adroit fixer. Stoopes “ruled Litchwood County through machinations so secret that one for decades could live under his authority without being aware of its existence.” It was the quality that had led Blease to deride him as a “pussyfoot.” Simkins wrote of a man whose candidacy for prosecuting attorney was bloodlessly cut short by Stoopes, as well as of a schoolmaster whose dismissal Stoopes quietly engineered, despite visiting the man before he left town to tell him how grieved he was to see him go.56
Stone Stoopes, however, was of a slightly different breed. While possessing his father’s “sobriety, pleasing manners, industry and willingness to scheme to accomplish personal ambition,” he was only half Stoopes. The other was Stone, and it was from his mother’s side of the family that he was said to have inherited a penchant for “acts of wild folly.” He had an uncle on his mother’s side who “was possessed of an energy so maniacal that he dissipated a fortune in numerous foolish enterprises.” Stone lacked Hog’s “good sense and deceptiveness,” Simkins wrote. What his father achieved by indirection, Stone pursued openly and, in the process, attracted enemies.57
Characteristics of Hog and Stone Stoopes in Simkins’s memoir provide context for a defining event in the lives of Will and Strom Thurmond. In the mid-1920s, when Strom was living at home in Edgefield and teaching at the local high school, a situation developed inside Will’s household owing to one of Strom’s acts of “folly.” Among the servants employed at Thurmond’s large home on Penn Street was a sixteen-year-old African American girl named Carrie Butler. In October 1925, Butler gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Essie Mae. Six months later Butler’s sister took Essie Mae with her to Pennsylvania, where she was moving with her husband. She passed the child to another sister, Mary Washington, who raised Essie Mae as her own. Not until she was thirteen years old did Essie Mae learn the identity of her actual mother. Three years later she met her father, Strom Thurmond, in his law office just off the town square in Edgefield.58
Essie Mae’s birth in October coincided with an abrupt occupational change for Thurmond. In the summer of 1925 he had attended summer school at Clemson for additional training in his job as an instructor of agriculture at Edgefield High School, a position to which he had been appointed the previous year.59 Yet a society notice in the Augusta paper published on October 12, the very day of Essie Mae’s birth, noted that Thurmond had resigned his teaching position and accepted a job with the Hollywood Company of Florida, a real estate firm, which was expecting to base him in Richmond, Virginia.60 If the abrupt resignation of a teacher in the middle of the school year raised any suspicions, the article did not mention them. A similar society item the following March noted his continued employment with the company.61 By June 1926, however, Strom was back at Clemson at the annual conference of state agricultural teachers. A notice in the fall of 1926 described him as a member of the Agricultural Department of Ridge Spring High School, in a nearby community.62 By 1927, he was back on the faculty at Edgefield.63
Thurmond departed from Edgefield the same month of Essie Mae’s birth and returned a few months after the child had been moved to Pennsylvania. We do not know whether Will Thurmond played any role in Strom’s temporary career change, or in Essie Mae’s being sent to Pennsylvania. It is hard to imagine, however, that a man so careful with appearances, so mindful of his reputation in Edgefield and throughout South Carolina, and so hopeful about his son’s ambitions would not have had some hand in making sure that the young man’s indiscretions did not imperil his future prospects. Will Thurmond knew by hard experience how a youthful mistake could forever alter a political career. Perhaps he had used legal and financial contacts to help get Strom out of town for a while. Perhaps he handed over money to ensure the baby was transported out of the state. If that had been his desire, a quiet conversation with some of Carrie Butler’s relatives was all that would have been required. Later the Thurmonds would regularly pass money to Essie Mae’s caregivers and, when she came of age, to Essie Mae herself.64
If Francis Butler Simkins is to be believed, there may have been a difference between father and son, a sense of judgment or discretion that did not make it from one generation to the next. Yet there remains an awesome fact that testifies to the son’s abilities as a fixer: the details of his act of miscegenation—a secret that likely would have ended his career had it been revealed at practically any point in his nearly three-quarters century of public service—he took with him to his grave.

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Crespino