JIM CROW: THE MAN AND HIS LIFE
O.T. FORD, 2002 DECEMBER 10
“I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”
This, of course, is Trent Lott, leader of the Republicans in the Senate, the once and future majority leader, and therefore one of the three most powerful politicians in the United States, and among the most powerful in the world. What he and, as he claims with possible justification, the state of Mississippi are proud of in 2002 is the fact that, in the presidential election of 1948, the electors from Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina, and one of those from Tennessee, voted for Strom Thurmond to be the president of the United States. Strom Thurmond was the governor of South Carolina, elected as a Democrat, which in the Deep South at that time meant hard-line conservative, segregationist, and, need it be said, racist. We don’t have to suppose that Thurmond did or did not support racist policies, for this is a matter of public record. As has been well-reported recently, he briefly abandoned the Democratic Party to challenge its nominee, sitting president Harry S Truman, on a platform of segregation. That platform included the statement: “We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race.” Thurmond himself said, during the campaign: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.”
Lott spoke in honor of Thurmond’s birthday, shortly before the latter retires from the senate, where he has served longer than any other person in history. Lott was later forced to issue this statement: “This was a lighthearted celebration of the hundredth birthday of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond. My comments were not an endorsement of his positions of over fifty years ago, but of the man and his life.” And this: “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.”
Tom Daschle, being collegial, said: “There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently, and I’m sure this was one of those cases for him, as well.” In a sense, I suppose Daschle is correct. Lott certainly wishes he hadn’t said what he said. But it does not follow that he didn’t mean every word. I believe that he did.
What I would like to do with Strom Thurmond, the man, and his life, is excoriate them in the strongest possible terms. I am willing to forgive; but the price of forgiveness is contrition. How contrite is Strom Thurmond? How contrite Trent Lott? If neither can persuasively demonstrate that he has understood the nature of his transgression, any apology is empty, worthless.
How could Strom Thurmond have atoned for a lifetime in the vanguard of bigotry and the rearguard of slavery? I am not certain that he could, but the best beginning would have involved packing his bags, returning to South Carolina, and spending the rest of his life keeping his mouth shut, unless, like a convict in the stocks, to tell everyone who asked how ashamed he was of his former beliefs. Instead, Thurmond spent the rest of his life indulging all of his remaining bigotries.
Strom Thurmond’s action in 1948 alone merited a complete forfeiture of any credibility. I feel about this exactly the way I feel about the Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan. Anyone who can endorse such a cause as an adult is finished as a potential public figure. (Though one might have said so to Kurt Waldheim, and one still might say so to Robert Byrd.) Don’t mistake me. I don’t object if Strom Thurmond’s grandchildren love him. I object that the people of South Carolina have sent him, uninterrupted since 1954, to represent them in the United States Senate.
I love my grandmother. My grandmother is ninety-five. She is much more in control of her faculties than Thurmond was even five years ago; she is at least capable of responding independently to a question, which Thurmond hasn’t been able to do for years. And she has been largely on the right side of history. For one thing, I’ve never heard her praise segregation, or suggest that, in 1948, it sure made a lot of sense to vote for an unapologetic racist. She has decency, which would have made it impossible.
But two things. First, it would matter less if my grandmother had been a racist, because she was not trying to rule anything, much less the world’s most powerful state. Second, at some point ten or fifteen years ago my family and I would have suggested that it was time for her to retire and leave the governing to someone else.
So when Strom Thurmond made it clear, many years ago, that he was no longer capable of doing his job, the smart thing, and the decent thing too, would have been to ease him out of office. It wouldn’t even have required a shove; it would only have required that the numerous people around him propping him up, literally indeed, simply stop doing so. But these people deliberately chose to keep him, with some effort, in the senate. The electorate of South Carolina deliberately chose to return him election after election. The members of Congress deliberately chose to treat him like he had some purpose being there, and after the years of chummy jokes and loving warmth, their leader gave a heartfelt speech endorsing his candidacy of 1948 and, without question, his views.
I don’t think there is anything cute or quaint or humane about it. Strom Thurmond was the standard-bearer for a despicable movement. He was the self-anointed architect of a criminal enterprise. Jim Crow was a crime against humanity. In Deutschland Thurmond would have gone to jail for his actions, and if implicated in lynchings could have gone to the gallows. I never wanted to see him hang, but I did ― I do ― want to see him tarred, feathered, and carried from Washington on a rail, which is what his career deserves.
So what if he has repented on a few key points? If so, he could have retired. But instead he retreated just to the next trench, and fought for the next line of supremacy. Whose human rights did he seek to violate then? With Thurmond there was always some non-white, non-male, non-Christian, non-straight person whom he and his supporters classed as not-quite-deserving of equality.
I want Trent Lott to pack his bags, too. Of course, I have always wanted that, but now we have evidence that his selective bigotry and general intolerance are in fact manifestations of something more sinister. Lott has, of course, “unquestionably” the full confidence of the president of the United States. He has the backing of his faction in the senate and the tolerance of the opposing faction, just as did Strom Thurmond. The people of South Carolina and Mississippi love them both. That only means that the president, and the senate, and the people of South Carolina and Mississippi, share their disgrace; and if the rest of us have enabled that, so do we.
“This was a lighthearted celebration of the hundredth birthday of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond.” I don’t know what else counts as legendary in Lott’s mind. In my mind, it’s infamous. And Trent Lott may celebrate oppression with a light heart, but my heart is heavy, and I won’t be joining him.