Lott and Thurmond


A Lott of Storm over Strom

My Daddy’s brother, my Uncle Charlie, graduated from Clemson with J. Strom Thurmond in 1923, and Thurmond made my Daddy an honorary colonel on his staff in 1947. 

I keep this aging document on the wall of my study.

Thurmond is the consummate politician — he knew long before Tip O’Neill that all politics is local — he serviced his district, and he knew his folks well.  Let a person’s child get an award, and it be written up in the newspaper, and that parent would get a personal letter from Strom — I’ve got at least one filed away that he wrote to my folks about me.  That’s why the old gentleman is still in office after all these years.

In 1948, Thurmond and a large number of Southern Democrats rejected their party’s nominee, President Harry S Truman.  The reason was Truman’s 1948 civil rights package which included four primary pieces of legislation: abolition of the poll tax, a Federal anti-lynching law, desegregation legislation and a permanent Federal Employment Practices Committee to prevent racial discrimination in jobs funded by Federal dollars.

The fundamental issue in 1948 was the Tenth Amendment to the United States’ Constitution:  “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

In other words, it wasn’t that Strom Thurmond and the rest of the Southern Democrats were against laws banning lynching; it was that they believed that these were rightly covered by the laws of the individual states and were not Constitutionally a legitimate part of Federal law.  That’s why the “Dixiecrats” were officially called the States’ Rights Party.

Behind these legal skirmishes was the issue of who would enforce the law.  In many places in the South of my birth, local sheriffs would simply look the other way on matters pertaining to the violation of the civil rights of African-Americans.  That is why Harry Truman, having integrated the United States military, pushed to make these things violations of Federal law — he knew that the local authorities in many places were either unable or unwilling to protect African-Americans from the systematic violation of their Constitutionally guaranteed rights.

This legal battle goes back to the aftermath of the War Between the States, when the logically consistent, eighteenth century Constitution was changed into a document with a measure of tension within it.  The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments sowed the seeds of destruction to the principles enunciated in the Tenth Amendment.  A movement that began with Abraham Lincoln and climaxed during Reconstruction, receded in the decades that followed, and Jim Crow laws were quickly passed in order to restore the civil order of White rule.  But the push for centralized, Federal control was revived during the Great Depression by Franklin Roosevelt and then aggressively applied to protect minority rights under Truman.  This is what Strom Thurmond saw, and this is what he opposed in 1948.  But Truman won over Dewey and Thurmond, and the Federalizing juggernaut took off.

Then came the Eisenhower years:  the Brown family sued the Topeka, Kansas School Board; the Brown’s attorney, Thurgood Marshall, argued and won their case before the United States Supreme Court in 1954; Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a White person in 1955; and Eisenhower sent troops into Little Rock, Arkansas to force the desegregation of Central High School in 1957.

After Eisenhower, came the charismatic, but somewhat politically inept, rich man’s son, John Kennedy, whose death paved the way for the non-charismatic, but extremely politically skilled, Lyndon Johnson, who passed a wide range of Federal laws that overturned all the Jim Crow Laws, but one, in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  The last Jim Crow Law was overturned in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Then came Johnson’s “Great Society” legislative package, so full of weal and woe.

These were turbulent years:  the political assassinations of two Kennedys and a King, the increasingly violent struggle over the War in Vietnam, the sexual revolution, the radical Federalization and secularization of the public school system.  Trent Lott was speaking from his heart, as a son of the South, when he said of the hundred year old Strom:  “You know, if we had elected this man thirty years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today.”

In a certain sense, this conflict is an issue of people believing that the ends justify the means.  In the minds of those who stood with Harry Truman, the egregious, systematic abuse of African-Americans in many quarters of the old South, justified using one part of the United States’ Constitution to distort the original intent of another part of that document.  From the perspective of many in the South, they were taking a principled stand based on loyalty to the Constitution of the United States, just as their ancestors had done in 1860 and 61, when eleven Southern states Constitutionally seceded from the Union.  From the perspective of many of those outside the South and most African-Americans in the South, this was but a hypocritical ruse to maintain White dominance over African-Americans.

That is why when Thurmond bolted the Democratic Party in order to bolster the campaign of 1964 Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, many Southerners concluded that the Republican Party had become the new bastion of states’ rights.  The most brilliant political leader of the last half of the twentieth century, Richard Milhous Nixon, saw the opportunity and formed his Southern Strategy, and a trickle became a torrent — I was at Martin Luther King’s funeral in 1968 and witnessed the crowd chant as Nixon approached the church, “Here comes Tricky Dick.”

That is why so many African-Americans in the South believe that the Republican Party is simply a new generation of Dixiecrats, the party of Thurmond, with his opposition to a Federal anti-lynching law.  That’s why Lott’s faux pas, an encore from several other performances over the years, is so very serious — he confirmed the worst suspicions of Black America.  It is also why not a few African-Americans in the South don’t believe that a real Christian can be a Republican.  Me?  I pray regularly with at least two Republicans whom I know are Christians:  my dear wife and an African-American, Baptist pastor.

For a biblical perspective on politics from the pulpit, you might enjoy reading this.   For a a biblical perspective on a Christian becoming involved in politics, click here.

  Bob Vincent