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“Do not forget that ‘skill and integrity’ are the keys to success.” This was the last piece of advice on a list Will Thurmond gave his son Strom in 1923. The younger Thurmond would keep the words in mind throughout his long and colorful career as one of the South’s last race-baiting demagogues and as a national power broker who, along with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, was a major figure in modern conservative politics.
But as the historian Joseph Crespino demonstrates in Strom Thurmond’s America, the late South Carolina senator followed only part of his father’s counsel. Political skill was the key to Thurmond’s many successes; a consummate opportunist, he had less use for integrity. He was a thoroughgoing racist—he is best remembered today for his twenty-four-hour filibuster in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957—but he fathered an illegitimate black daughter whose existence he did not publicly acknowledge during his lifetime. A onetime Democrat and labor supporter, he switched parties in 1964 and helped to dismantle New Deal protections for working Americans.
If Thurmond was a great hypocrite, though, he was also an innovator who saw the future of conservative politics before just about anyone else. As early as the 1950s, he began to forge alliances with Christian Right activists, and he eagerly took up the causes of big business, military spending, and anticommunism. Crespino’s adroit, lucid portrait reveals that Thurmond was, in fact, both a segregationist and a Sunbelt conservative. The implications of this insight are vast. Thurmond was not a curiosity from a bygone era, but rather one of the first conservative Republicans we would recognize as such today. Strom Thurmond’s America is about how he made his brand of politics central to American life.
“A deft portrait . . . Crespino’s description of what followed [Harry S. Truman's executive order forbidding racial discrimination in the armed forces] makes the politics of today seem quaint and civilized by comparison . . . What Thurmond offered Republicans, Crespino argues, was not just a strategy to attract disaffected white Democrats, but also a business-friendly, union-free, well-armed, white-dominated vision of the future."—David Oshinsky, history instructor at the University of Texas and New York University, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] insightful biography of a crafty Southerner who altered the landscape of American politics . . . Mr. Crespino deftly interweaves accounts of Thurmond’s relationships with such contemporaries as FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover (who leaked dirt on Communist-affiliated organizations to Thurmond) and Ronald Reagan, whose career ‘took root’ in the ‘hothouse of law-and-order’ politics of the mid-’60s.”—Carlo Wolff, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“[O]utstanding . . . Crespino presents the right blend of narrative, scholarly analysis, and restrained outrage.”—The Washington Monthly
“Joseph Crespino argues convincingly [that] Thurmond’s political impact reached far beyond the nostalgic Old South . . . Crespino’s lucid, illuminating book reveals an outsize political personage whose complexities often eluded supporters and antagonists alike.”—American History
“No other book is likely to offer a more insightful understanding of both Strom Thurmond the man and the age in which he lived. This is a thoroughly terrific and important work, for it makes clear the continuing impact of Thurmond’s legacy on our politics today.”—Doris Kearns Goodwin, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Team of Rivals
“Joseph Crespino’s Strom Thurmond’s America is a historical biography that makes much of recent U.S. history more understandable. It is essential reading for anyone interested in post-1945 American politics.”—Robert Dallek, author of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
“Joseph Crespino brilliantly captures the hypocrisy of a southern society that could mold Strom Thurmond into, simultaneously, an audacious white separatist and a flagrant race-mixer willing to abandon his own black daughter. Crespino also properly positions Thurmond not as an outlier or a relic of a distant era of Dixiecrat racism, but as the architect and harbinger of the extremist, racially tinged politics that would reshape the Republican Party into the twenty-first century.”—Douglas A. Blackmon, former chief of the Wall Street Journal's Atlanta bureau and Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Slavery by Another Name
“This pathbreaking biography reveals a Strom Thurmond whose influence stretched far beyond the racist precincts of Dixie. He was, as Joseph Crespino brilliantly shows, a pioneer of many of the conservative themes we now take for granted: stalwart anticommunism, opposition to labor unions, support for ‘law and order,’ and the promotion of ‘family values.’ Crespino combines the incisiveness of a fine scholar with the literary talent of a gifted storyteller. When I finished the book, I almost felt like cheering!”—Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
“Strom Thurmond has become one of those antic men people hear about but can’t quite believe existed—the racist demagogue with the secret biracial daughter who made self-interest into a public art form. Because Thurmond was such a gifted opportunist, it’s difficult to say what he really believed, leaving the resourceful historian Joseph Crespino to do the near impossible. Strom Thurmond’s America is a reasonable portrait of a reactionary that serves as a valuable prism through which to examine the ways politicians encourage social divisions to consolidate power.”—Nicholas Dawidoff, author of The Crowd Sounds Happy and The Catcher Was a Spy
“Strom Thurmond’s America is at once a captivating portrait of an important national figure and a nuanced and provocative rethinking of recent American political history. Joseph Crespino handles Thurmond’s personal story with great aplomb and persuasively reframes the late senator as a pivotal character in modern American politics."—Bruce Schulman, author of The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics
“Joseph Crespino offers a provocative account of Strom Thurmond’s life and the ways in which some conservatives used race to build a national coalition. He makes a compelling and original case that, rather than a throwback to an earlier era in politics, Thurmond was one of the architects of the modern Republican Party, a sophisticated political strategist who played on the fears and anxieties of the American electorate.”—Julian E. Zelizer, author of Jimmy Carter and Governing America
“A highly useful and timely companion in an election cycle marked by the resurgence of the controversies of Thurmond’s day.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Engaging . . . offer[s] a far more authoritative portrait than Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson’s Strom or Jeffrey K. Smith’s Dixiecrat . . . Strongly recommended for anyone interested in 20th-century American political history or biography.”—Library Journal
“[An] impressive biography . . . Crespino’s portrait reveals a flawed, egotistical, unapologetic, headstrong man whose views helped give birth to the contemporary Right and whose legacy continues to influence the GOP.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Joseph Crespino is a professor of history at Emory University. He is the author of In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution and the coeditor of The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.