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Strom Thurmond's Mixed Record

Editor's Note: This article was published last December after Trent Lott declared that the United States would have been better off if Strom Thurmond had won the presidential election of 1948. The piece suggested that it was ironic that Thurmond was to become the icon of the segregationist movement because when he first came to power he was regarded as a moderate.

As of this moment, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott is fighting for his political life. With a few sentences last Monday, Lott appeared to endorse Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for the presidency on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. Since that time he has issued numerous apologies, and the Republican Party is in the midst of a very public identity crisis. Meanwhile, reporters around the nation have been busy educating the American public on one of the critical elections of the twentieth. The Dixiecrat defection was an important turning point in the political transformation of the South, serving as the cross-over point for many white southern voters in their eventual move from the Democratic to the Republican column. The election of 1948, therefore, marked the tentative beginnings of the two-party South and the region's political transition from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold.

Strom Thurmond has come to embody this political transformation, with his 1948 Dixiecrat candidacy, his support for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, his re-election as a Republican in 1966, and his key role in Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968. However, if by virtue of these hallmarks Thurmond is to be identified as the father of the South's political transformation, a closer look at his role in the Dixiecrat movement dictates that perhaps we should recharacterize him as something of a deadbeat dad.

Although present at the inception, Thurmond provided little subsequent support for the infant organization. Thurmond's role in the Dixiecrat campaign of 1948 was, in the final analysis, both a blessing and a curse for the Dixiecrats. A closer look at his troubled candidacy and Thurmond's ambiguous motives reveals cleavages within the revolt, complicates our understand of postwar southern politics and the painful process of change.


The roots of the 1948 Dixiecrat revolt stretch back to the tumultuous New Deal and war years, when Southern conservatives became increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of economic policies that threatened to redefine the region's economic, racial, and political relations. The revolt took definite shape in February of 1948 after Harry Truman delivered his civil rights address to Congress. Practically every white southern leader roundly denounced the civil rights legislation proposed by the president; however, few were receptive to the idea of independent political action that would threaten the Democratic Party's chances for success in the presidential election in November. Greater still, few congressmen and senators were willing to break with the party and threaten their seniority.

From February until the election in November, the states' rights revolt was piloted by a small group of conservative Democratic state leaders from the Deep South and primarily from Mississippi and Alabama, men who had long opposed the New Deal and had been involved in the 1944 attempt to deny Franklin Roosevelt his fourth nomination. By and large these men -- and they included Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright, Mississippi Speaker of the House Walter Sillers, former Alabama governor Frank Dixon, and Louisiana political boss Leander Perez -- represented the conservative agricultural and industrial forces in their respective states. Such men were neither temperamentally suited nor philosophically given to organizing a grassroots campaign. Although they liked to boast that the revolt had emanated from the voters, it was in fact a top-heavy organization dedicated to controlling existing political machinery and in grabbing existing political power. They were less interested, at least initially, in creating a new political party than they were in regaining control of the old. The Dixiecrats hoped to convince the individual state Democratic Parties to withhold their electoral college votes from President Truman, the nominee of the national Democratic Party. They sought to deny Truman victory and throw the election into the House of Representatives, where they could then barter and trade for a compromise candidate. They would have demonstrated their power and would have recaptured the South's preeminent position within the Democratic Party.

As the Dixiecrat's presidential candidate, Strom Thurmond proved both a blessing and curse for the organization. Thurmond had leapfrogged to the front of the states' rights revolt at the Southern Governors' Conference in mid-February 1948. This meeting came in the wake of Harry Truman's unprecented civil rights address to the United States Congress. Not everyone -- especially the Mississippi Dixiecrats -- was pleased with Thurmond's assumption of leadership. At the conference of southern governors, Mississippi governor Fielding Wright advocated a hard line against the president. Wright recommended that a "Southern Conference for True Democrats" meet at Jackson, Mississippi, in March to draw up a plan of action. Thurmond recommended a moderate approach, suggesting that the governors meet with the national party forces to seek a compromise on the civil rights issue. Thurmond's suggestion won the support of the governors, much to the irritation of Wright and others. Of course, the administration did not compromise. Although Thurmond stayed within the states' rights camp, Wright and many Alabama and Mississippi Dixiecrats viewed him warily.


Thurmond's official Dixiecrat candidacy was a last-minute decision by both the Dixiecrats and Thurmond himself. He was in many ways, as his biographer Nadine Cohodas has written, a candidate by default. Although Thurmond had become one of the leaders of the movement in February, he remained uncertain during the first half of the year about the wisdom of staging an independent campaign. Indeed, it was unclear just what exactly was going to transpire at the states' rights convention in Birmingham on July 17, 1948. Among themselves, the Dixiecrats were undecided as to whether they were merely going to urge southern states to deny Truman their electoral college votes or whether they were going to nominate candidates themselves. A small group of states' rights supporters from Alabama and Mississippi engineered the convention and decided unilaterally that the group should nominate its own candidates -- in effect, create a third party (although they denied that was what they were doing). Just who those candidates would be, nobody knew.

When the convention recessed for lunch, the states' rights insiders still had not settled on their man. Their first choice, Arkansas Governor Benjamin Laney, proved fickle. Laney harbored strong doubts about attending the conference, which was held only days after the national Democratic Party convention. On his way home to Arkansas from the national Democratic Party convention in Philadelphia, Laney told reporters in Cincinnati that neither he nor any of the Arkansas delegates would go to Birmingham. By the time he reached St. Louis, he had changed both his mind and his train and was on his way to Alabama. Laney arrived in Birmingham the day before the Dixiecrat convention. He checked into his hotel and never left his suite for the duration of the convention. During the convention's noon recess he formally withdrew his name from consideration for the presidential nomination. He felt the best hope for defeating the civil rights plank was through the state Democratic organizations, not a third party.

Spurned by the Arkansas governor, states' rights leaders turned their attention to Thurmond, who, like Laney, initially had not planned to attend. The South Carolina governor had been detained on state business and did not even arrive in Birmingham until the convention's morning activities were nearly completed. While the conventioneers were enjoying lunch, states' rights leaders desperately searched for a candidate. Many in the states' rights higher councils wanted Fielding Wright for the top spot. Wright had discouraged this, saying, "I do not feel that I am a man of sufficient political stature to accept such a nomination." Strom Thurmond operated under no such personal misgivings. Thurmond agreed to accept the states' rights mantle by the time the caucus reconvened at 2:30 p.m. This spur-of-the-moment decision surprised even his closest advisors, who did not accompany him to the convention. In an interview given more than forty years later, Thurmond advisor and Charleston attorney Robert Figg stated that had he gone with the South Carolina governor to Birmingham, he would have advised Thurmond against accepting the nomination. At the time, some in the Palmetto State saw Thurmond's candidacy as a public relations ploy designed to improve his chances in the 1950 U.S. Senate Democratic party primary. In later years, Thurmond denied this accusation.


Thurmond proved a wise choice as a presidential candidate. In a movement that was short on leaders of solid reputation, he brought a certain seriousness and legitimacy to the cause. But in terms of his political history, Thurmond was in many ways an odd fit with the other Dixiecrats. Although his subsequent political career has made him into the poster boy for the defense of white supremacy, Thurmond's gubernatorial politics and policies characterize him as a moderate. His 1946 gubernatorial campaign had been remarkably free of racist appeals. Compared to other southern governors elected during that politically schizophrenic year, Thurmond stood somewhere in the middle, halfway between Alabama populist James Folsom and Georgia racist Eugene Talmadge As governor he helped streamline government agencies, supported a minimum wage and maximum hour law, consistently urged abolition of the state's poll tax, advocated legislation to provide secret ballots in the general election, and championed the creation of a merit system for state government employment. In 1947, when a brutal lynching in upstate South Carolina shocked the nation, Thurmond quickly mobilized the state constabulary to apprehend the lynchers. Like other moderates in the 1940s and 1950s, Thurmond focused on modernization, undertaking an intense campaign to promote industrial development and economic growth in the state. Thurmond heartily believed that the South's racial dilemma would be solved through economic growth and development, not through federal interference.

Thurmond's assumption of the Dixiecrat mantle shocked South Carolina's small but active liberal community, which had great hopes when Thurmond was elected in 1946. In a letter to Thurmond, one African-American activist claimed he would have voted for Thurmond in the 1946 primary "were I not disfranchised" because "not once did you raise the race issue for political purposes." As late as October 1947, Thurmond remained a loyal Truman man. Thus, South Carolina liberals were shocked and disappointed when Thurmond moved to the front of the states' rights revolt in February 1948. State NAACP leader James Hinton criticized Thurmond's involvement as "a keen disappointment to the negroes of South Carolina." Up to that point, Hinton claimed, blacks felt that in Thurmond, "they had a Chief Executive, free from White Supremacy attitudes and expressions, and one who would hasten the day, when Negroes in South Carolina would enjoy 'EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY.'" South Carolina's tiny but active liberal community had come to expect better from its governor.

But even if his gubernatorial policies distinguished him from his fellow Dixiecrats, like his more conservative compatriots, Thurmond opposed all proposed federal civil rights legislation, which he considered unwarranted intervention and interference into the rights of states. In many ways, the South Carolinian personified the gendered components of the region's conservative states' rights political culture, making him particularly well suited to serve as point man in the states' rights crusade.


In 1948, Thurmond effectively combined a fighting spirit and his status as a World War II veteran with a well-known penchant for clean living, vigorous physical exercise and pretty women into a representation of himself as the vehicle by which the south might address its political emasculation. In the gendered discourse of South Carolina politics, Thurmond -- a bachelor -- portrayed himself as a virile lady's man. Whether caught lounging on Myrtle Beach with two comely companions, or bestowing a kiss on a local festival queen, the bachelor governor never shied away from photo opportunities that illustrated his masculinity. Thurmond's reputation as a ladies' man was widespread. Congressman William Jennings Bryan Dorn of Greenwood warned his sister about taking a job in the governor's office. "[U]se your own judgment," Dorn advised. "Personally, I had rather you would stay out of Strom Thurmond's office, for your own good if for no other reason. His reputation and fastness concerning women is nation-wide...."

Thurmond's bachelor days ended on November 7, 1947, when he married twenty-one-year-old Jean Crouch of Elko, a former Azalea Festival queen and a secretary in the governors' office. The day before their wedding, the betrothed governor, casually (albeit curiously) decked out in white gym shorts, dark socks, and wing tip shoes, posed in a headstand for a Life magazine photographer. The caption read: "Virile Governor demonstrates his prowess in the mansion yard before wedding." (Before resorting to this acrobatic feat, Thurmond had asked the photographer whether he wanted to feel his muscles.) If some voters thought that the forty-four-year-old Thurmond's official retirement from the dating scene signaled a major life change, this and subsequent photo opportunities proved them wrong. Amusingly, one congressman later recalled that "to most people, who didn't know about gym shorts, it looked like Thurmond had pulled off his pants, left his shoes on, and then stood on his head for the cameras."

Thurmond appealed to conservative white men suffering from a self-diagnosed case of political impotency.

Strom Thurmond's masculine persona melded well with the Dixiecrats' political rhetoric. Prominent conservative states' rights spokesmen used familial metaphors and gendered scenarios to play to the deep-seated fears and paranoia of white southerners fearful of losing political power within the national party to organized labor and blacks. White southerners manufactured political allegories in which they were featured as cuckolds, and they often likened their new, dependent position in the national party to those who possessed little or no power in society: women and children. One Mississippi Dixiecrat crafted a campaign song to be sung to the tune of an existing song entitled "Slap Her Down Again, Pa!" a song about wife beating. In the retooled states' rights version, white southern Democrats assumed the role of the battered wife. Elsewhere, others portrayed the changing relationship between southern Democrats and the national party as a failed love affair. Thurmond's personal countenance, then, made him a worthy leader of the battle for state's rights, a battle waged as much on the rhetorical and cultural fields as through the ballot box. As someone who combined a political outsider's fighting rhetoric with personal sexual potency, Thurmond appealed to conservative white men suffering from a self-diagnosed case of political impotency.

In addition to his personal appeal, Thurmond also brought incredible energy to the campaign trail. He thrived on the crowds and the campaign motorcades preceded by wailing police sirens. Dixiecrat speech writer J. Oliver Emmerich, publisher of the McComb Enterprise-Journal noted that, in this respect, Thurmond and his vice-presidential running mate, Governor Fielding Wright, were as different as "daylight and dark." Whereas Thurmond "got a big kick out of" political campaigning, Wright recoiled from the attention. Fielding Wright abhorred campaigning, and it showed. Emmerich frequently accompanied Wright on the campaign trail. Years later, he described a typical Wright campaign outing to New Orleans. Emmerich recalled with bemusement how, as their train approached the New Orleans station, Wright became nervous by the sight of the crowd awaiting his arrival. Anxious, he quietly slipped out the back of the train and climbed, undetected, into the back of a waiting taxi cab.

Thurmond's love of the campaign trail, the pressing crowds, and the blaring marching bands, arose from political egocentrism rather from a desire to build a viable and lasting political movement. Thurmond's independent political tendencies made him a good spokesman for white southerners angry at what they saw as abuse at the hands of the national party; these same tendencies also made him impossible to manage as a candidate. Thurmond ran his campaign as an independent enterprise. He frequently bi-passed the Jackson office altogether when arranging his personal appearances and disregarded speeches written for him by public relations staff, preferring instead to use those prepared by his own staff. Thurmond dashed from town square to town square throughout the South, sometimes delivering as many as five speeches a day. The Dixiecrats' campaign director remarked bitterly that Thurmond wanted to greet voters in every little "pigtrail" in the South.


With his moderate record, Thurmond's nomination mitigated, or at least complicated, outsiders' negative assessment of the southern party. In an editorial immediately following the Birmingham convention, the New York Times said the States' Right platform illustrated a lack of "good sense," but regarded Thurmond's nomination as politically astute. A columnist from the New York Star labeled Thurmond a "Dixie Paradox," who "embodies in one personality the Old South and the New." Both New York papers were impressed by Thurmond's record as governor: his opposition to the poll tax; his abhorrence of mob violence; his support of a minimum wage and maximum hour law; and his support for industrialization and for the removal of discriminatory regional freight rates.

The most colorful assessment of Thurmond's candidacy came from Baltimore editor and critic H. L. Mencken. The curmudgeonly Mencken considered Thurmond "the best of all the [presidential] candidates" but lamented that "all the worst morons in the South are for him." John Ed Pearce of the Louisville, Kentucky, Courier-Journal, however, was less enamored of the South Carolinian. He noted that Thurmond's racism differed from the more outspoken white supremacists in style but not in substance. "On the platform Mr. Thurmond and his fellow travelers shout of Americanism, our way of life, the right to choose one's associates, Communism, Reds. But they mean Nigger. Mr. Thurmond, of course, never says the word; he's not the type."

Pearce was right: Thurmond was not the type, but many in the Alabama and Mississippi Dixiecrat camps were, and to Thurmond, at least, the difference was important. Thurmond constantly differentiated himself from the Mississippi and Alabama Dixiecrats. Thurmond and his advisors clearly distinguished between their brand of conservatism and what they referred to as "the reactionary and conservative background" of the Alabama and Mississippi Dixiecrats. Beyond style, though, Thurmond's pro-development philosophy and his belief that the problem of the color line was at heart an economic problem differentiated him from the Mississippi and Alabama Dixiecrats who were tied to traditional Black Belt and industrial interests that did not pursue economic expansion and who were, at best, ambivalent about racial violence.


The most significant difficulty that arose between Thurmond and the other leading Dixiecrats concerned the future of the organization. Throughout the campaign, Thurmond avoided any hint that the political effort he was spearheading had a longer shelf-life than the presidential election, while the Dixiecrats' main campaign office in Jackson wanted its candidate to serve as point man for a new political movement. The goals of the movement had metamorphosed in the course of the campaign. In order to reclaim their former position within the national party, the Dixiecrats hoped to capitalize on party regularity. But ironically, in formulating their plan and in cobbling together a regional effort to block first Truman's nomination and then his election, the Dixiecrats in effect created something new, acquiring all the trappings of a third party. They held not one but three regional conventions -- in Jackson in May, in Birmingham in July, and in Houston in August -- that attracted delegates from across the Deep South. They adopted a party name -- the States' Rights Democratic Party -- drew up a platform, and nominated candidates. And they held a campaign separate from the national Democratic Party. The candidates traveled about the South delivering stump speeches to enthusiastic crowds; the party opened campaign headquarters in every southern state, held fundraisers, printed posters and buttons, and recruited volunteers.

Following the Birmingham convention, where Thurmond and Wright had been nominated, the newspapers reported the birth of this new political party. Ultimately, the Dixiecrats assumed something of a split personality. In the four states where they had captured control of the electors, Thurmond and Wright were listed as the Democratic Party candidates. In those states, the Dixiecrats counted on in-grained voting habits. However, in the other southern states, the Dixiecrats were forced to campaign as a third party and had to convince voters to vote for the electors of the States' Rights Democratic Party. But regardless of whether they were listed as the Democratic Party candidates or the States' Rights Democratic Party candidates, the process of either gaining control of the states' electors or in mounting a third party effort forced many Dixiecrats to begin to think about themselves in a new way.

Organizers differed on whether the States' Rights Democratic Party would continue to exist as a viable protest vehicle or separate party after the election. In order to be taken seriously, some campaign strategists, particularly those in Mississippi and Alabama, felt that they needed at least to appear committed to carry on the fight after the election, to prove to voters that, as one Dixiecrat staffer confided, "the States' Rights movement is not a flash-in-the-pan...." Others strongly believed that the Dixiecrat campaign could serve as the foundation for a new conservative party that would attract conservative elements from both major parties. Among themselves, the more radical Dixiecrats acknowledged that indeed, they were ideologically closer to the Republicans; the Dixiecrat organization could be used to move white southerners from the Democratic party to the Republican party. For them, the States' Rights Democratic Party, then, represented a means to creating a more viable two-party system in the South.

Thurmond disagreed with the evolving goals of the States' Rights Democratic Party. Ever since moving to the front of the revolt in February, Thurmond remained convinced that the states' rights effort represented nothing more than a temporary protest whose ultimate goal was to reassert white southerners' control of the national Democratic Party. Thurmond had no intention in carrying the protest beyond the election and certainly had no intention of creating a third party. But as late summer melded into fall, and especially as the Dixiecrats mounted third-party efforts in most of the southern states, many Dixiecrats began to discuss the possibility of keeping their organization alive after the election. In the weeks prior to the election, Alabama and Mississippi Dixiecrats began laying the groundwork for a permanent organization. Many States' Righters agreed with attorney Charles W. Collins, author of Whither Solid South and the Dixiecrats' tactician, that Thurmond's campaign had created the basis for a new political party. Dixiecrat leaders convened in Memphis about a week before the election and agreed to continue the fight for "constitutional government and individual liberty" after the election.

The disagreements over strategies and goals that had divided the States' Rights organization during the 1948 campaign spilled over into the post-election era and multiplied exponentially. Minimum cohesion had been achieved during the presidential campaign primarily because all factions were dedicated ultimately to securing votes for Thurmond. With that focus gone, the organization's tenuous unity began to crumble altogether. States' Rights leaders struggled to give their organization post-election life. The group voted to create a non-profit States' Rights Institute in Washington with the vague mission of "spreading" states' rights principles and focused their energies on defeating the civil rights legislation pending in Congress. In May 1949, the Dixiecrats held their second annual convention. They officially changed their name to the National States Rights Democratic Committee and declared that although it was not a political party, it hoped to have some impact in the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections.


Strom Thurmond moved quickly to separate himself from the Dixiecrats after November 1948. Although he vowed publicly to continue to fight for states' rights principles, he proved unwilling to continue any close affiliation with the movement he had led only a few months previous. Indeed, Thurmond's actions in 1949 and 1950 confirmed the suspicions of many that his run for the presidency was as much about ego and publicity as principle. But while he kept the Dixiecrats at arms' length, he never made the break complete and he never publicly criticized the organization. He sent mixed messages to his former supporters. Shortly after the election, Thurmond assured one leader of the Alabama states' rights forces that he supported the creation of a permanent States' Rights organization to fight all civil rights legislation and promised his active support. To others, he refused to commit to any post-election activity and instead counseled patience.

Essentially, Thurmond had his eye on the 1950 Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate; he and his advisors feared that if he appeared to be closely aligned with the states' rights organization, too many South Carolina voters might also affiliate themselves with the group and "might not feel qualified to enroll and vote in the [1950] Democratic primary." But they also did not want Thurmond to make any public disavowals of the organization, since many in South Carolina had supported his candidacy. Privately, he and his advisors criticized the activities of the states' rights organization, ridiculing many of the proposals of the states' rights group as "screwy." They feared that any close association with the National States' Rights organization might tarnish Thurmond's reputation. Thurmond kept his distance. With Thurmond effectively gone and with no one to take his place at the head of the group, the organization quietly folded.

Even though Thurmond had abandoned the Dixiecrats almost as the votes were being counted, he never again fit completely comfortably within the national Democratic Party. Along with many other voters in the Deep South, for the next twenty years he remained firmly committed to a period of flux in presidential elections, as national political allegiances bounced back and forth among Democratic, Republican, and Independent candidates. If, as historians have noted, the Dixiecrats marked the beginnings of the two-party South, their campaign likewise illustrated how messy and protracted the process was bound to be. Abandoning traditional voting habits and forming new alliances began at the edges of politics, among the most disaffected, and in the elections that least threatened local power. Indeed, if the man who has come to personify political change in the South had conflicting emotions about abandoning traditional allegiances, how must the average white voter have felt?