Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond

In This Review

Strom: The Complicated Personal and Political Life of Strom Thurmond

By Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson
PublicAffairs, 2005
432 pp. $27.50
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When Strom Thurmond died in 2003 at the age of 100, he left behind one of the most complex and important legacies in contemporary U.S. politics. His father, who shot a man in broad daylight for insulting him (and was acquitted by a jury of his peers), was an adviser to "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, head of the faction of South Carolina Democrats that ended Reconstruction by suppressing the African American vote. Strom inherited this mantle and carried four states as the Dixiecrat anti-civil rights candidate in 1948. A hard-line segregationist in a state of hard-liners, Thurmond led the resistance to civil rights until, as black voters began to make their presence felt, he started hiring black staff and began to serve black constituents with the same tenacity that had endeared him to generations of white South Carolinians. As a founder of the southern wing of the Republican Party, he became a presidential kingmaker and a key figure in turning courts back to the right.

In this riveting, Faulknerian book, Bass and Thompson give the first detailed account of Thurmond's relations with his "other" family -- headed by the dignified Essie Mae Washington-Williams, Thurmond's illegitimate African American daughter, whose mother, originally a teenage servant in young Thurmond's family home, was his occasional companion for many years. (Among his other dangerous liaisons was a relationship with the formidable murderess Sue Logue, the first woman the state of South Carolina ever sent to the electric chair.) This portrait of Thurmond's life, a mixture of honor and intrigue, of Christian faith and dirty doings, describes more than the life of one man; it opens a window onto a region and a culture that foreigners and non-southern Americans must understand to have a clear picture of how the United States works.