What Trent Meant

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After serving his country with distinction in France, Thurmond ran for governor in 1946, claiming that “we can quickly modernize and expand our public school and college facilities.” He stood for higher teacher pay and increased public health and welfare programs, including aid for the aged, the young, and the handicapped. During the campaign he castigated an opponent who had opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election in 1944, and on at least one occasion he described the late President as having been the world’s greatest leader.

“We need a progressive outlook, a progressive program and a progressive leadership,” he insisted, and South Carolina voters agreed, electing him by a wide margin. In his inaugural address, Governor Thurmond not only called for abolishing the poll tax but also advocated expanding workers’ compensation laws and improving working conditions in plants and factories. He repeated his call for better public education and told his constituents that “more attention should be given to Negro education.” Perhaps most surprising of all, he demanded “equal rights for women in every respect,” including “equal pay for equal work for women.”

Nor did he immediately back away from these principles. Thurmond’s first education budget contained more funding for African-American schools than South Carolina had ever allocated before (even if it was far from equal to the money allocated for white schools). When a mob beat to death a black man accused of stabbing a white cabdriver, Governor Thurmond saw to it that most of the men were arrested (even if an all-white jury subsequently found them not guilty).

Perhaps most surprising, in 1947 Governor Thurmond demanded “equal pay for equal work for women.”

“We who believe in a liberal political philosophy,” he said in a radio broadcast on October 2, 1947, “in the importance of human rights … will vote for the election of Harry Truman and the restoration of Congress to the control of the Democratic Party, and I believe we will win.”

It is difficult to see how all this jibes with the conservative free-market philosophy that Senator Lott and today’s Republican party espouse. Later Lott tried to clarify his remarks by saying that he had meant Thurmond’s opposition to communism and his call for a strong military. Yet the candidate seems to have had little or nothing to say on either issue during the 1948 campaign. Certainly he had no great disagreement on these subjects with Harry Truman, who would—for better or worse—soon investigate federal employees, and who was in the midst of rebuilding the military, constructing the Marshall Plan and the NATO pact, and otherwise instituting the policy of containment that would eventually strangle the Soviet regime.

Most of the South seemed to agree at the time; Thurmond was able to carry only four states and 2.5 percent of the national vote as Truman swept hack into the White House. The nation would change, and Strom Thurmond would change—which is what is ultimately most dispiriting about Lott’s assertion that we have had “all these problems” over the past 55 years.

This was, after all, the period in which we won the Cold War, cemented our status as the wealthiest and most powerful nation in history, and made the United States a truly inclusive country, with rights for all. There were many problems involved in achieving this, but was it really so bad? Was it worse, say, than the 55 years before 1948, which included two world wars and the two worst depressions in our national history?

What Mr. Lott chooses to see as our problems are the natural convulsions of any great democracy. For all the disparate criticisms we have had about our country, liberals and conservatives alike, none of them have ever been successfully addressed by sweeping them behind a euphemism, by pretending that institutionalized racism is only a question of “States’ Rights” or that silence is the equivalent of peace. Mr. Lott’s failure to understand this should alone disqualify him from the leadership of our senate, no matter what he said at a party.