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Longest-Serving Senator Led Segregationist South

June 27, 2003|Edwin Chen and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Former Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a onetime symbol of fierce Southern resistance to integration and the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, died Thursday night. He was 100. Thurmond died at 9:45 p.m. at Edgefield County Hospital in Edgefield, S.C., his son, J. Strom Thurmond Jr. said in a statement issued by the hospital. "Surrounded by family, my father was resting comfortably, without pain, and in total peace," the statement said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn) interrupted Senate debate on a Medicare prescription drug benefit to announce Thurmond's death, describing him as a "close friend, confidant and colleague of most of us in this body."

"A great oak in the forest of public service has fallen," said Thurmond's longtime South Carolina colleague, Democratic Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings.

Thurmond, a Democrat-turned-Republican who first came to the Senate in 1954, bade farewell to his colleagues last November. "That's all," he told the Senate chamber in his last appearance. He remained in Washington until the official date of his retirement in early January.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Strom Thurmond obituary -- An obituary of former Sen. Strom Thurmond in Friday's Times said he parachuted into Normandy on D-day in June 1944. In fact, Thurmond was on a troop glider that crash-landed behind enemy lines in France.

"South Carolina has lost its favorite son," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who succeeded Thurmond, said Thursday night.

Thurmond, who was born Dec. 5, 1902, had been in frail health. Late in his final Senate term, he lived at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where doctors could monitor his health. Upon returning to South Carolina, he lived in a recently renovated wing at Edgefield County Hospital.

Thurmond remained a controversial figure until his retirement. A remark by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at Thurmond's 100th birthday party, praising the 1948 presidential campaign of the then-segregationist candidate, cost Lott his job as Senate GOP leader.

Thurmond's ardent opposition to the growing civil rights movement in the late 1940s established him as a national figure -- and created a legacy for which some never forgave him.

Initially a Democrat, he bolted the party in 1948 to protest the national convention's inclusion of a civil rights plank in its platform. Serving as South Carolina's governor at the time, he ran for president in the general election as a "States' Rights Dixiecrat," winning Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.

Preaching a segregationist creed, he declared defiantly during the campaign: "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our eating places, our schools, our churches, our swimming pools and our theaters."

Thurmond returned to the Democratic fold after winning his first Senate term in 1954 as an independent write-in candidate -- a feat unique in U.S. history. But he continued to find himself at odds with the party as the issue of equal rights for blacks gained momentum.

In 1955, Thurmond initiated the "Southern Manifesto," a petition he circulated in Congress calling for all-out resistance to the Supreme Court's 1954 decision outlawing segregation in schools.

In 1957, he set what remains the Senate record for longest filibuster, talking for 24 hours and 18 minutes against a civil rights bill. After he finally sat down, the measure passed, 60 to 15.

In 1964, he helped lead opposition to that year's landmark Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations. He denounced it as a traitorous measure promoted by "Negro agitators spurred on by communist enticements."

Later that year, Thurmond officially switched parties, becoming a Republican and campaigning for GOP presidential nominee Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona. As he changed parties, he altered his agenda, focusing less on race and more on traditional conservative issues, such as opposing "big government" and championing a strong national defense.

An astute politician, Thurmond also adapted quickly to the changed reality of Southern politics -- the sudden influx of black voters after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 swept aside the discriminatory laws that had kept them from the polls.

Thurmond opposed the measure but wasted little time attempting to court black support. He became the first senator from the Deep South to hire black staff members and appoint blacks to patronage jobs. He brought home federal projects that benefited black communities. He voted for renewal of the Voting Rights Act and the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

His share of the black vote remained relatively small, but his efforts defused the intense opposition he once sparked and showed his willingness to adjust to the changing South.

"When the times change and people change, you've got to change too," he commented during his 1996 reelection campaign. "If you don't change, you don't stay around long."

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