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Dancing with the Devil

By Kathy Y. Wilson · July 2nd, 2003 · Your Negro Tour Guide

In 1970, Sen. Strom Thurmond hired Thomas Moss. A black South Carolinian and director of the Voter Education Project, which advocated black voter registration, Moss was the first black person hired by any member of Congress hailing from South Carolina.

Thurmond, however, isn't going down as racially progressive, supportive of civil rights or a friend to the colored. That's too easy.

More like an elder Klansman than an elder statesman, Thurmond -- who just passed away at age 100 -- worked hard to pause America at attack dogs, fire hoses and separate entrances, even attributing integration to Communism.

Actually, I don't recall Thurmond as anything less than what he was: the southern racist who, when he'd say "Negro" and it came out "niggra," made me feel like I needed a shower. You know, a stereotypical bigot so blatantly racist it almost made sense.

And he was. But it didn't.

Thurmond's hiring of Moss, who for 25 years parlayed the senator's clout to improve conditions in South Carolina's black communities, was a political preemptive strike.

See, Thurmond had just felt the pinch of supporting Gov. Albert Watson, a boisterous bigot who "stood up for hardcore rednecks." Watson lost, and Thurmond saw the colored section turning against him for his penchant for trying to defeat civil rights legislation -- once with a 24-hour, 18-minute filibuster against the 1957 civil rights bill.

So to keep the darkies happy at home, he had to show good faith. As long as he kept Moss performing grunt work, there was sure to be dancin' 'round the campfire.

Thurmond returned again and again to the Senate.

This is the thumbnail version of Strom Thurmond, the man whose work realigned white southern conservatism with racist Democrats. Of how this World War II veteran -- a Democrat, a "Dixiecrat" and then a Republican, foe of civil rights and hater of integration -- got away with it as America's longest-serving senator.

And this is why I'm glad he's dead. Reading, thinking and ultimately writing about Thurmond is like a root canal -- it's a painful but unavoidable extraction of infectious roots.

To affix time and place to their time and place in history, folks of that generation recall their whereabouts when Kennedy or King were shot. I did the same with Thurmond, making a mental note. As a TV newscaster ran through his obituary, I turned to catch a glimpse of Thurmond's Bitter Beer Face.

"Is Thurmond dead? He must be dead," I said. "Yes, thank God," my friend said, herself relieved.

Relishing Thurmond's death is a guilty pleasure. I can only compare it to the mental unraveling of a long-ago editor who'd shaped up to be an intentional adversary. He lived to test my character. He rejoiced at my failures, sabotaged my successes and stared in disbelief when I prevailed. I believed he was evil.

The day he slinked out the newsroom, weighted by the collapse of the infrastructure he'd devised for grinding me down, was the day I made another mental note.

It was historical. It was hysterical.

Relief and triumph returned when I read Thurmond's New York Times obit. I know, I know. It appears I've taken too personally the inevitable death of an old-ass bigot.

But consider the closeted (and not-so-) support of Thurmond's ideologies held aloft by his history-making political career. And then there's Sen. Trent Lott's tribute to Thurmond on his 100th birthday, which bears repeating: "(America) wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" had Thurmond been elected president in 1948.

Scary. Scarier still is how close Thurmond came. Facing President Harry Truman in 1948, Thurmond, then still a Democrat, got 1.1 million votes and 38 electoral votes from a gaggle of southern states after southerners balked at Hubert Humphrey's plea for civil rights during the Democratic National Convention.

In 1981 and again in 1995, Thurmond was elected president of the Senate by his Republican colleagues, placing him third in line to the presidency behind VP and Speaker of the House. Scary. Just because it never happened doesn't mean it couldn't have.

History's a toothy road that'll rise from behind to bite us in the ass if we move too slowly outrunning it. I was raised not to judge a man's salvation. But it makes me feel good picturing Thurmond in Hell.

For now, I summon my sanctified imagination: Thurmond has cleared security. He's charging up his Miracle Ear for the long haul. He's throwing back a cold one with Satan at a whites-only bar. For eternity.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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