Strom's Legacy

David's Bookclub: Strom Thurmond's America


"How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American congressmen, become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote? How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?"

Rand Paul posed that question in his speech last week at Howard University.

Coming from him, it does seem a singularly naive question. He might have found an important piece of the answer at, where he will find this statement by his own father on the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, explaining the Texas congressman’s continuing opposition to that law:

[T]he forced integration dictated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 increased racial tensions while diminishing individual liberty.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the federal government unprecedented power over the hiring, employee relations, and customer service practices of every business in the country. The result was a massive violation of the rights of private property and contract, which are the bedrocks of free society. ...


Rand Paul is right of course that the Republican party is the historic party of civil rights; the Democratic party the historic opponent. In 1964 as in 1875, it was Republican votes that enacted civil rights laws; Democratic votes that overwhelmingly opposed them.

But those Democrats who voted “no” in 1964 lost the struggle for control of their party. And the single most ferocious of the Democratic “no” votes, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, would soon switch to become a Republican himself, leading to the realignment of the American party system that Rand Paul lamented at Howard.

Strom Thurmond today seems a figure out of the remotest historical past. Yet among the things I learned from Joseph Crespino’s fascinating new biography of Thurmond is how very central Thurmond was to the rise of the modern conservative movement. It was in his office that the business plan for the Heritage Foundation was written. His political operation nurtured talents like Lee Atwater - and became the “firewall” that rescued imperiled candidacies from George HW Bush’s in 1988 to John McCain’s twenty years later.

By then, Thurmond had long since laid aside the racial themes of his earlier career. He hired black aides, served black constituents, and focused his attention on national security issues. His path was emulated by John Tower, the Texas Republican senator who had also voted “no” in 1964, and by Democrats-turned-Republicans of the next generation.

Thurmond could be seen - and by conservatives was seen - as a politician who successfully made the transition from the racial politics of the southern past to the post-racial conservatism of today.

But there’s an old joke about this kind of self-invention, with the punchline: “And do the other admirals agree that you’re an admiral?” White conservatives may agree that modern conservatism has emancipated itself from the racial past. Rand Paul expressed wonder that his audience at Howard does not see things the same way. This may be an occasion to walk a mile in the other man’s moccasins.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

1964 was not only the year of the great civil rights act. It was also the year that Strom Thurmond reaffiliated as a Republican to support the presidential campaign of his great ally, Barry Goldwater.

Goldwater’s platform issues were anti-communism and anti-statism. Yet we make a mistake if we forget, or choose to forget, that he not only opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but also the Brown v. Board of Education decision and its subsequent enforcement by the Eisenhower administration.

Goldwater explained his stance by invoking his libertarian philosophy. In the words of his famous book, The Conscience of a Conservative:

[T]he federal Constitution does not require states to maintain racially mixed schools. Despite the recent holding of the Supreme Court, I am firmly convinced - not only that integrated schools are not required - but that the Constitution does not permit any interference whatsoever by the federal government in the field of education. … It so happens that I am in agreement with the objectives of the Supreme Court as stated in the Brown decision. I believe that is both wise and just for negro children to attend the same schools as whites, and that to deny this opportunity carries with it strong implications of inferiority. I am not prepared, however, to impose that judgment of mine on the people of Mississippi or South Carolina, or to tell them what methods should be adopted and what pace should be kept in striving toward that goal. That is their business, not mine.

In assessing those words, begin with this one fact. Until the 1920s, both Mississippi and South Carolina had black majorities. In the year Goldwater published, blacks made up more than 40% of the populations of the two states. In what sense can we say that “the people” of a state have adopted a decision if the majority or near-majority of those people have by violence and threat of violence been excluded from participation in that decision? Goldwater probably never thought very hard about that question, but the logical implication of his words is that their author - or at least the author’s expected audience - did not consider black people as belonging to “the people.”

The old Democratic South was not a very democratic place. In 1932, South Carolina gave 98.03% of its vote to Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt gained a further half point in 1936. Yet that astonishing percentage was produced by an equally astonishingly tiny electorate: in a state of 1.7 million souls, only 105,000 cast a ballot in 1932 and only 115,000 in 1936. The one-party landslide was produced by one-party methods: I learned from Crespino that South Carolina did not adopt the secret ballot until the year 1950.

The all-white electorate of South Carolina enthusiastically welcomed government intervention in the economy, so long as that intervention concentrated its benefits on whites. Crespino:

Southern congressmen were among the most devoted supporters of New Deal largesse, yet they never failed to safeguard the prerogatives of Jim Crow. Categories of work in which African Americans were heavily represented, notably farmworkers and maids, were excluded in the 1930s from laws that created modern unions, set minimum wages and maximum work hours, and instituted Social Security. Southern congressmen ensured that local officials administered New Deal programs, and they defeated efforts to include anti- discrimination provisions in New Deal legislation.

(p. 36.)

As a state senator in the 1930s, Strom Thurmond aligned himself with this program of energetic government for white benefit. He supported federal job creation programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration, so long as participation was restricted to whites. He supported New Deal farm programs on the same condition.

Elected governor in 1946 - in large part on the strength of his genuinely heroic World War II record, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star among other decorations - Thurmond pressed federal regulators to rewrite railway regulations so that it cost no more to ship goods from South to North as from North to South. (It's striking to learn from Crespino how huge this now-forgotten issue once loomed in Southern politics.)

But as industry migrated southward after the war, Southern New Dealers like Strom Thurmond changed their economic philosophy. Not so coincidentally, Thurmond began his rethink of his economic views at the same time as the national Democratic party was tentatively changing course on civil rights.

In 1945, New York’s Republican governor Thomas E. Dewey signed into law the nation's first statute banning employment discrimination on grounds of race, religion, or national origin. The New York law was modeled on an executive order issued by Franklin Roosevelt, but the federal order applied only to war contractors and had not been much enforced. The New York law was intended to bite - and Dewey plainly intended to make his law an issue in the presidential election of 1948.

In that election, black votes would matter as never before. Before 1932, the vast majority of American blacks lived in states where they were not allowed to vote. After 1945, more and more lived in states where they could. How would they use that vote? To reward the party of the New Deal? Or to punish the party of segregation, Tammany Hall, and racially discriminatory labor unions? Since 1932, the Democratic party had been both. After 1945, the Democrats would have to choose - or risk their former dominance in the industrial north. With New York state alone accounting for more than 15% of the electoral college in 1948, the final choice was inescapable: Truman must outbid Dewey on civil rights.

In 1948, Truman desegregated the armed forces and created a new commission to enforce FDR’s toothless order against discrimination by federal contractors. Truman's turn to civil rights jolted pro-segregation Southerners. Once upon a time, they might have attempted to deny him renomination. In 1936, however, the Democrats had dropped their ancient rule requiring two-thirds of convention delegates to nominate, putting an end to the de facto Southern veto.

Unable to punish Truman from inside the party, pro-segregation Democrats determined to punish him from outside. They nominated their own presidential candidate to run as a “States Right” Democrat: Strom Thurmond.

Pro-segregation Democrats did not expect to win, obviously. They hoped (at a minimum) to cost Truman re-election, punishing their party for turning its back on them - and (at a maximum) to cast the election into the House of Representatives where Southern state delegations voting as a block could choose a president more to their liking.

The plan spectacularly backfired. Yes, Thurmond’s challenge cost Truman Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. But instead of reminding national Democrats of the South’s power, the plan underscored the much greater importance of the industrial North. Thurmond's four deep south states accounted for 39 electoral votes. Meanwhile, the from-the-left insurgency of former Vice President Henry Wallace tipped New York to Dewey and the Republicans. That one northern state was worth 47 electoral votes. Thanks to an unexpectedly strong showing in the West and the farm belt, Truman managed to eke out re-election.

Nevertheless, the lesson of 1948 was unmistakeable: The post-Roosevelt party needed to worry much more about placating northern liberals than Southern segregationists.

Strom Thurmond drew the same conclusion. He would never support a national Democrat again.

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954, Thurmond would over the next 10 years build South Carolina into the strongest redoubt of the draft Goldwater movement. When pro-civil rights Republicans complained that Goldwater was transforming the “party of Lincoln” into the “party of Thurmond,” Goldwater brusquely answered that conservatives “must go hunting where the ducks are.”

Every one of Goldwater’s defeated rivals for the Republican presidential nomination supported the Civil Right Act: Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton, Henry Cabot Lodge. After November 1964, it might have been imagined that the future of the party would belong to civil rights minded business Republicans like them. Surely the Goldwater debacle had demonstrated a severe shortage of ducks in the anti-desegregation ranks?

But the next summer came the first of the terrible urban riots of the 1960s. The children and grandchildren of the great migration of African Americans to the North failed to find jobs and opportunity, and instead often turned to welfare and crime. Soon, more and more Northern whites were expressing concern that the pace of racial change was “too fast.” Even as the black great migration ended, a reverse great migration was shifting white populations toward the Sunbelt. First California and then Texas overtook New York in population. The same math that in 1948 pushed Democrats to the left has since 1976 induced Republicans to the right.

You’d expect Rand Paul of all people to remember this history. After all, the single most important intellectual influence on his father’s politics and his own was the cantankerous economist Murray Rothbard - who in 1948 had founded a Students for Thurmond club as a graduate student at Columbia University.