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Blacks Recall Thurmond as Enemy and Friend

June 28, 2003|From Associated Press

EDGEFIELD, S.C. — For many blacks, Strom Thurmond could never have lived long enough for them to forget his segregationist past.

But as far as 104-year-old Mamie Rearden is concerned, he lasted long enough for her and other blacks to at least forgive.

"They forgive him for the things that he did wrong, and they remember you can change," she said from her home here, where the home-grown governor and U.S. senator died Thursday at the age of 100.

Whether Thurmond truly had a midcareer change of heart toward blacks or just pandered to them, he got enough of their votes -- 20% in his last election -- to stay in office for nearly half a century.

And many blacks in his home state Friday were willing to remember Thurmond as much for his efforts to reach out to them as for the racially inflammatory rhetoric that started him on his political path.

The Rev. Jasper Lloyd remembers a time when his skin color barred him from joining the South Carolina National Guard. But when he thinks of Thurmond, he chooses to remember a man who would plow through a crowd to shake his hand.

"You can't go forward by looking backward," said the 60-year-old Lloyd, now a member of the Edgefield Town Council. "He was a great statesman."

In the 1960s, Robert Williams was refused a license in Edgefield for a plumbing and electrical business because he "didn't have enough schooling." Thurmond heard about it, made a phone call, and Williams received his license.

"Anytime we needed anything, we could just call and the next morning we would get some answers," he said.

Still, to other blacks, Thurmond's actions on the national stage are his most enduring legacy.

They think of his 1948 presidential campaign, during which he ran on a Dixiecrat platform of segregation. They recall his authorship of the Southern Manifesto, in which the region's congressional delegation declared the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision a "clear abuse of judicial power."

And then there was his 24-hour filibuster -- which still stands as a record -- in opposition to the 1957 civil rights bill.

"As black people make assessments of friends and enemies -- of those who supported racial equality and those who didn't -- Thurmond falls on the side of those who did not," said Willie Leggett, a political scientist at historically black South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. "Thurmond is not going to be a hero for black people because he never became a proponent of black rights."

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