Senator Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), retiring at the end of the current term, made his farewell speech on the senate floor this week, and glowing elegies from his colleagues soon followed. But while it seems automatic that senators would rush to pay tribute to a man with such an extensive record of national service, Thurmond’s legacy is unavoidably one of regression and segregation, rather than enlightenment and enduring idealism.
Thurmond, crouched meekly over his desk, a soft shell of that once hard-eyed, uncompromising legislator that ran rough shot through the Congress, quipped in his speech, “The U.S. Senate is a special place. I love all of you-and especially your wives.” To the end, Thurmond, who turns 100 in December, celebrated the ornery feistiness that has become the trademark of his career.
Senator George Allen (R-Va.) praised Thurmond’s love of humanity and his consistent attempt to extend opportunity, but Thurmond’s record refutes these claims.
Thurmond, who will have served a record 48 years in the senate when the term ends, burst onto the national scene as a leading proponent of racial separation in the early 1950’s. His constant refusal to support any equal opportunity legislation, and his persistent effort to create and define an American class system based on race, are ideals that have helped impede societal progress for generations.
Elected to the senate as a Democrat in 1954, Thurmond abandoned the party when it proposed and ultimately passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He became a Republican that same year, and endorsed the embarrassingly futile presidential bid of fellow separatist Barry Goldwater.
Supporters say that Thurmond has distanced himself from segregated policy in recent years, but the defense that he was one of the first southern senators to hire a black staffer and that he has supported many African-American nominees to the federal judiciary is classic racist rhetoric, akin to embattled pitcher John Rocker claiming racial sensitivity because he once had a “black guy over his house for dinner.” It is defining humanity by race rather than character.
Perception is certainly a two-sided coin. It is true that Thurmond has worked tirelessly for the people of South Carolina and his cause, but for the most part, those causes have been a debilitating agent to progression. Due to poor health and advancing age, Thurmond has not been a functioning legislator in almost a decade. His enfeebled presence in the halls of the senate serves as a symbol of the undying resistance to change that continues to haunt the American south.
It is natural to give thanks to those who have served, but to praise Thurmond is to forgive the cultural divide that he represents.