April/May 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 2
It’s not an easy thing to be a politician. One never knows when the media will suddenly pick up an offhand remark—the same sort of thing that one has said for years, really—and suddenly focus withering, national attention on it. No wonder most politicians would rather history be an infinitely malleable subject, a record that they could rewrite at will.
Such was the case for Trent Lott, who not long ago lost his Senate majority leadership over remarks he made at a birthday party for South Carolina’s centenarian senator, J. Strom Thurmond. It was widely reported that Senator Lott, in recalling Thurmond’s 1948 run for the Presidency as the candidate of the States’ Rights or “Dixiecrat” patty, remarked upon how Lott’s own Mississippi was one of the few states to vote for Thurmond in that contentious election and how if the rest of the United States had followed suit, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.”
It is understandable that Lott was stunned by the ensuing firestorm. No reasonable observer could have considered such remarks a great departure from his past, which included a political apprenticeship with one of the South’s most avowedly racist congressmen and his continued, respectful appearances before a white racist organization. In the light of the twenty-first century, though, Lott’s remarks suddenly seemed much more ugly, and before long Senator Lott was protesting that he had been misunderstood—that he had not been referring to Thurmond’s unyielding defense of American apartheid but to the other things Strom had stood for in 1948.
Unfortunately, this defense only serves to distort the actual historical record. The Dixiecrats, of course, were an impromptu third party, breakaway Southern Democrats attempting to punish President Harry Truman for his support of civil rights. Neither Thurmond nor his supporters thought he would actually be elected, hut the Dixiecrats were hoping, at the very least, to cost Truman the Presidency and teach civil rights advocates among the Democrats a lesson.
The trouble with Lott’s assertion that he liked the Dixiecrats’ other, nonracist ideas was that they didn’t have any. So dedicated were they to the cause of preserving Jim Crow that the States’ Righters never bothered to write an actual party platform. Instead they issued a “declaration of principles” that asserted above all, “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.”
Nor did Thurmond expand upon this. As the Louisville Courier-Journal writer Allan M. Trout remarked about the campaign, “Ordinarily you would expect a candidate for President to discuss the issues of domestic and foreign policy, what he would like to do for labor, agriculture and business… . But Thurmond’s harp has only five strings, and the only tune he plucks is ’The Civil Rights Blues.’” John Ed Pearce, writing in the same paper, was more blunt: “States’ Rights is the issue only insofar as it concerns the right of States to solve— or refuse to solve—their race problems. The real issue is one word, and that word is never spoken. It is one thought, and that thought is never expressed. The issue is Nigger…. Mr. Thurmond, of course, never says the words; he’s not the type. And it is comical to listen as he tiptoes around the issue, like an old-fashioned father trying to explain sex to his son without saying the words.”
But there is another problem with Senator Lott’s protest, something that the national media managed to miss completely. Way back in 1948 Strom Thurmond was a liberal.
This may seem scarcely credible today, but it is true, and it speaks to how much both Thurmond and the South have changed in the last half-century. There was a strong tradition of economic populism in the South dating from the 1870s, and for all their intransigence on race, most leading Southern politicians of the 1940s were at least rhetorical liberals to one degree or another. They had seen the terrible toll the Great Depression had taken on their states and welcomed the federal programs that had done so much to modernize the region and bring relief to its people.
“Thurmond had a reputation as a liberal-minded governor,” confirms Irwin Ross in his fine 1968 history The Loneliest Campaign: The Truman Victory of 1948 . “He had sought to abolish South Carolina’s poll tax, institute the secret ballot in general elections and modernize the state constitution.” Thurmond, in fact, had been something of a liberal from the beginning of his political career. In her informative biography Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change , Nadine Cohodas notes that in his early races for county school superintendent (in 1928!) and state senate, Thurmond supported acts to protect bank deposits and to increase revenues for education at all levels—even when this included black schools and colleges and even when it meant “taxing income, inheritance, and intangibles.” He campaigned for federal funding to improve soil conservation and to build dams that would provide rural South Carolina with cheap, publicly owned electrical power. As school superintendent he instituted “a program of free health examinations from local doctors and dentists for white and black school-children.”
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).
“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.