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Strom Thurmond

James Strom Thurmond (December 5, 1902 - June 26, 2003), known as Strom Thurmond, was the oldest and longest serving United States Senator, who represented South Carolina from 1954 to 1956 and 1957 to 1964 as a Democrat and from 1964 to 2003 as a Republican.

Thurmond joined the United States Army Reserve in 1924; on D-Day, 1944 he landed in Normandy with the 82nd Airborne Division. For his military service, earned 18 decorations, medals and awards, including the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star[?] for Valor, Purple Heart, Belgian Order of the Crown[?], and French Croix de Guerre[?].

Thurmond's political career extended from the days of Jim Crow, when he was a strong supporter of racial segregation as a southern Democrat. He was elected Governor of South Carolina in 1947 and worked hard to preserve the state's existing laws of segregation.

In the 1948 election he was a candidate for President of the United States of America on an independent ticket of the States Rights Democratic Party, also known as the Dixiecrat Party, which had split from the Democrats over the issue of segregation. Thurmond carried four states and received 39 electoral votes. His primary campaign plaform was the perpetuation of segregation. One 1948 speech, met with cheers by supporters, included the following:

I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.
(Click here for audio clip, 163KB MP3 file)

In 1954 he became the only person ever to be elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate. He resigned in 1956 to run in the Democratic Party primaries for President. After losing the primary, he was promptly reelected to the Senate. His career in the Senate remained uninterrupted until his retirement forty-six years later, despite his switch, in 1964, to the Republican Party. Thurmond played an important role in building Republican support in the South, which was overwhelmingly Democrat prior to the early 1960s.

He supported racial segregation with the longest filibuster ever on the Senate floor, speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes in an unsuccessful attempt to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1957. He began by reading the entire text of each state's election laws.

Thurmond later claimed to have had a change of heart and endorsed integration earlier than most other Southerners. Some believe this change of policy was a calculated political move designed to extend his Senate career in a changing social environment. Regardless of his motivations, he would later hire black staffers, enroll his daughter in an integrated public school, and support blacks for federal judgeships.

On December 5, 1996, Thurmond became the oldest serving member of the US Senate, and on May 25, 1997, he became the longest serving member (41 years and 10 months). He cast his 15,000th vote in September 1998. He became President Pro Tem of the Senate in 1981, and held the largely ceremonial post for three terms, alternating with his longtime rival Robert Byrd depending on the partisan composition of the Senate. There was some controversy towards the end of Thurmond's Senate career over his mental condition. Some, including close friends, claimed that he had lost mental acuity and should not have been serving in the Senate. Concern was also raised about the fact that for many years, as the Senate's highest ranking official he was third in line to assume the presidency. However, his supporters claimed that while he lacked physical stamina due to his age, that mentally he remained aware and attentive and that he maintained a very active work schedule in showing up for every floor vote. Thurmond did not seek re-election in 2002. Note that while he was the oldest serving Senator, he was not the longest lived individual to have served in the Senate. This honor is reserved for the scarcely known Cornelius Cole, who reached 102 in 1924.

Controversy ensued on December 5, 2002 when incoming Senate majority leader Trent Lott remarked at Thurmond's 100th birthday party:

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.

Lott immediately made several public apologies for the statement, and said that it was said as an off the cuff compliment to Thurmond on his birthday and not an endorsement of any certain policy that Thurmond supported 50 years ago. Lott subsequently announced on December 20, 2002 his decision to resign his position as Senate minority leader as a result of the public furor created by his statements concerning Thurmond.

Strom Thurmond left the Senate in January of 2003, as America's longest-serving senator. On June 26, 2003, he died at 9:45 p.m at a hospital in his hometown of Edgefield, South Carolina, where he had been living since retiring.

Political timeline

Trivia

  • Was 14 at the time of the Russian Revolution
  • Was already 41 when he fought at the Battle of Normandy
  • One of the few contemporary politicians to have received the votes of Civil War veterans
  • Was a Senate colleague of Prescott Bush, grandfather of U.S. President George W. Bush
  • Married his last wife, Nancy Janice Moore, in 1968 when he was already 66 years old, and she only 23
  • According to Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson's 1998 biography, Ol' Strom, Thurmond's first child was Essie Mae Washington Williams, born in 1925. Her mother was a black servant named Essie "Tunch" Butler.
  • Fathered his first legitimate child in 1971, and his last in 1976 when he was 73 years old
  • Became a grandfather for the first time on June 17, 2003, just nine days before his death

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