Any Senator Strom Thurmond biography is likely to paint the United States' longest-serving senator as a complicated man who had a strong hand in shaping American politics for nearly half a century. Most will start with the question: Who was Strom Thurmond? And then they'll go on to detail an expanded form of the bio given by the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, hitting the facts that he was born in 1902 and died in 2003; that he was a lawyer, judge, and state senator; that he fought in World War II; and that he was governor of South Carolina before becoming that state's senator in 1954.
They'll also mention that he was one of the most notable defectors from the Democratic party to the Republican party, and that he proceeded to guide the dogma of the GOP into becoming one of states' rights and individual freedoms (some failing to mention that this was but a veil for his inherently racist tendencies on par with those of George Wallace).
But, while these facts are important to know, as it's important to respect the man's political prowess and give credit where it's due, one must also confront the deeply troubling aspects of Thurmond's life. Mainly, that Thurmond made a political career out of being a leading proponent of segregation, and that he was a notorious lothario who was often a walking contradiction.
On December 17, 2003 – six months after Thurmond's death – a woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams (pictured above) publicly announced that she was the love child of the United States' longest-serving senator and his family's black maid, Carrie Butler. At the time of conception, Thurmond was in his 20s and had yet to hold a public office; he was actually a local teacher and coach. There were also strict miscegenation laws in place, which made it illegal for couples of different races to marry or procreate, that could have ruined his career before it started.
While it may have shocked most of the nation that Thurmond, a career politician who had made a name for himself by ardently advocating a segregationist platform between the 1940s and '60s, had a child of mixed race, many who knew the Senator suspected that he had fathered Washington-Williams. He often supported her and her children financially (sometimes using a go-between), and he even wrote a letter of recommendation for her son to attend medical school. Washington-Williams, in her announcement, went so far as to note that "all those on his staff knew exactly who I was."
Now, if it was that clear that Washington-Williams was Thurmond's daughter; that he never objected to helping her or her family; and that, after her announcement, Thurmond's remaining family readily accepted Washington-Williams's claim, one might be left wondering why Thurmond himself had never publicly acknowledged Washington-Williams as his own flesh and blood. Washington-Williams claimed there were no hard feelings, and she kept quiet for the sake of her father's reputation and career. But doesn't it say something about the man and his stances that he: (a) thought the truth of his mixed-race daughter would ruin his reputation; (b) was willing to suppress such a blatant truth for the sake of his own personal gain; and (c) left Washington-Williams out of his will while he set up generous trusts for his other children?
High-ranking politicians being legendary horn-dogs is nothing new in America; examples of it range from rumors of JFK and anything that moved to Bill Clinton and a certain intern (among others). However, few earned such blatant sobriquets as Senator "Sperm" Thurmond.
Thurmond's libido was so strong – and insistent – that, according to a local D.C. legend, he kept a baseball bat in his office to allude to the assertion that after he died, the undertakers would need to beat down his erection with it in order to close the coffin.
Now, one might think that flirting, though constantly and with any woman, anywhere, could be harmless by itself. But one would be wrong. Especially when said flirting involved minors. Specifically, the 16-year-old daughter of the newly inaugurated President.
According to Congressman Tom DeLay, at her father's inauguration lunch in 1997, Chelsea Clinton "had Strom Thurmond on one side of her and me on the other.... I thought, 'What a terrible thing to do a young lady.' Strom Thurmond, he kept hitting on her." Hillary Clinton even commented on the questionable actions of the "frisky nonagenarian Senator from South Carolina" in her memoir Living History.
In the wake of JFK's assassination, President Lyndon Johnson made a push to pass a comprehensive piece of civil rights legislation, something that had been a dream of Kennedy's. However, Johnson belonged to the Democratic party and was from the South, meaning he would have to confront the Dixiecrat tradition led mainly by Thurmond, by then a powerful senator with a great deal of political capital.
What followed was a massive intra-party fight, dramatized by HBO's All the Way, that finally resulted in the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a colossal step toward equality for minorities in the United States.
In the fallout of the bill's passage, however, a number of longtime Southern Democrats switched to the Republican party, the ringleader being Thurmond himself. With his massive political pull, he was able to turn what had long been blue states red. And it was at this precise moment that the Republican party gained the racist connotations that still plague it today.
What's most disturbing about Thurmond's switch is that he disguised his hatred for civil rights beneath the veneer of "states' rights." Essentially, he argued for the continued oppression and disenfranchisement of communities of color under the guise of it being up to a state to decide when, where, and how to give people equal rights. The relationship between the rhetoric of states' right and thinly veiled racist politics became a tenet of Thurmond's political agenda.
In the late summer of 1957, Congress sought to pass the first civil rights bill since 1875. It was clear the Jim Crow South, dominated by Thurmond-minded Dixiecrats, had been routinely suppressing the black vote as well as infringing on their other core human rights and freedoms. Of course, arguing that the federal government couldn't tell states what to do (even if those states were enabling white supremacists to intimidate minority citizens on a daily basis), Thurmond couldn't let this happen.
After a lengthy back and forth between the House and the Senate, President Eisenhower's bill was effectively neutered, leaving only the creation of a committee to investigate voting irregularities. Still, Thurmond thought this went too far. So, with the support of a few fellow senators, he planned a massive filibuster.
In preparation for the marathon filibuster, Thurmond allegedly spent hours in sweat tanks to allow his body to absorb fluids while limiting the need to excrete. However, even Thurmond knew he couldn't stop nature, and he and his cronies supposedly set up a pail in the closet so that he could relieve himself while still having a foot on the Senate floor, thus allowing the filibuster to continue for a total of 24 hours and 18 minutes.
Despite his boorish rambling against a severely watered-down civil rights bill, Thurmond was unsuccessful, and the bill passed, serving as a fundamental stepping stone for the better-remembered and more effective civil rights legislation of the following decade.