Strom Thurmond’s Daughter

The Trent Lott-Strom Thurmond Controversy

Reflections on things Political


Sex and Racism

Dealing with Racism Christianly


Reflections on the benefits and curse of hypocrisy in a civil society

“Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.” (Ecclesiastes 10:1.)


James Strom Thurmond’s daughter, Mrs. Essie Mae Washington-Williams, along with Senator Thurmond’s descendants, Wanda and Jason Terry at a news conference in Columbia, South Carolina in December 2003.

I grew up in a home where Strom Thurmond was revered. Probably after George Washington and Robert E. Lee, my family held no figure in higher regard. My father’s brother, Charlie, graduated from Clemson with Mr. Thurmond in 1923, and when Thurmond became governor of South Carolina, he made my father an honorary colonel on his staff in 1947. A devout Baptist, Senator Thurmond served for many decades on the board of Fundamentalist bastion, Bob Jones University – he even wrote my father encouraging him to send me there.

Strom Thurmond appreciated beautiful women. The only private conversation I ever had with him was in 1965, at a beauty contest that was part of the state American Legion convention – we were both bachelors – he was a judge, and I was the male vocalist. Always a bit flirtatious, he seemed to revel in his reputation as a lady’s man the older he got. In his November 2002, farewell address to the United States Senate, Mr. Thurmond said, “I love all of you – and especially your wives.” A few days later, at his now infamous one-hundredth birthday party, a former Thurmond staffer, Thad Strom, joked: “I see so many people here today whose life Strom Thurmond has touched – and some he even squeezed.” Thad Strom continued, “There are several things Strom would never miss: a Peach parade, a Senate vote, or the opening of a new Hooters franchise.” And Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, responded: “What is Hooters, if it’s not about breasts, if it’s not about the women’s physiques?” Former Senator, Republican Presidential nominee and Viagra spokesman, Bob Dole, then told Thurmond that he could set him up with his Pepsi advertising partner, twenty-one-year-old Britney Spears. At the time this must all have seemed to be in perfectly good taste to the “good old boys” of the United States Senate, but their humor reflected an underlying knowledge of Senator Thurmond’s tastes.

Mr. Thurmond met his first wife after he became governor of South Carolina while she was still in college. Jean Crouch had competed in a beauty contest, and Governor Thurmond recruited her to come to the state capitol to serve as his secretary after she graduated. They were married in 1947; he was forty-four, and she was twenty-one. But Jean Thurmond died of a brain tumor in 1960, and they had no children together.

Mr. Thurmond ended his eight-year bachelorhood in 1968, when he married twenty-two-year-old, former Miss South Carolina, Nancy Jean Moore. He was sixty-six. They had four children: Nancy, who was killed by a drunk driver, Strom Jr., Julie and Paul. The children were all his. Strom Thurmond had been a fitness buff all his life. I remember a photograph of him in The State, doing pushups on the steps of the U. S. Capitol. I think it was after somebody questioned him about retirement from the Senate in view of his age.

As I said, his Senate colleagues recognized him as a fitness buff and lady’s man. I remember a comment former Indiana senator, Birch Bayh made to me while I was escorting him and his wife to a television interview in Philadelphia. I had told him that I was from South Carolina, and he commented on Senator Thurmond’s marriage to a woman who was forty-four years his junior: “He’s found somebody to practice his pushups on.” I’m sure the Indiana Democrat was simply repeating a joke he’d heard in the cloakroom of the Senate.

Until December of 2003, I never thought about why such a physically fit man with such an eye for the ladies remained a bachelor until he was forty-four. Little did I know that Senator Thurmond had joined himself to a young woman when he was twenty-two, much less that he had a daughter from that union. But his physical union was not accompanied by the verbal act that would have made this a legal marriage. Shortly after graduating from Clemson, Strom Thurmond became involved with his family’s Black housekeeper, Carrie Butler. When little Essie Mae was born to them on October 12, 1925, Miss Butler was sixteen. Neither was married at the time. It was the same year that the devout Baptist, Thurmond, became a Master Mason in the Concordia Lodge Number 50 of Edgefield, South Carolina.

What should a young man do in the face of such a situation? The Bible is very clear as to the obligations that a man has both to his children and the woman through whom they are born. When a man steals a woman’s virginity, he has taken from her that which she can surrender but once. Moral purity is so cherished by God that under the civil code of Israel, if a woman deceived her husband at the time of marriage regarding her virginity, she could be executed. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21.) While our civil laws do not exactly follow those of ancient Israel, these laws do demonstrate divinely inspired principles of fairness: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.” (Exodus 22:16.) “He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” (Deuteronomy 22:29)

Strom Thurmond should have married Carrie Butler and given his name to their daughter. However, back in those days, South Carolina civil law absolutely forbad marriage between Blacks and Whites. So, rather than moving to a state where he could fulfill his moral obligation, Mr. Thurmond committed himself secretly to seeing to it that his little girl would never do without, and Miss Butler gave up their daughter for adoption. Her Aunt Essie’s sister and brother-in-law, Mary and John Washington, adopted little Essie Mae Thurmond. But Strom Thurmond followed her life and eventually helped her get into college, where she met and married a law school student, Julius Williams. Through the Washington-Williams marriage, Strom Thurmond came to have four grandchildren – what a strange irony that a man should have grandchildren before his first legitimate child was born!

It was not the only irony of this tale of the old South. The affair between Strom Thurmond and Carrie Butler profoundly illustrates the contradictory world into which they were born, a world where not only was it illegal for Blacks and Whites to intermarry, but where justice was never administered evenhandedly.  Although Mr. Thurmond did break his state’s laws against miscegenation, the sexual union was evidently consensual – if one may ever regard sex in a situation so pregnant with inequities as consensual.  Therefore Thurmond did not commit rape under the laws of South Carolina at the time, because Miss Butler was over the age of fourteen, the statutory age of consent in 1925.  And once the pregnancy was known, had both Thurmond and Butler been White, probably Thurmond would have married her.  Had Thurmond been Black and Butler White, Thurmond would probably have been summarily executed by lynching. But in the South of the early twentieth century, Miss Butler had few legal rights against a White person, especially the son of a judge.

It is also profoundly ironic that a man with an African-American daughter should have been the greatest Senatorial defender of segregation – he set the Senate’s filibuster record by speaking for twenty-four hours and eighteen minutes in a futile attempt to block the 1957 Civil Rights Act from becoming the law of the land – and the only presidential candidate of the Dixiecrat Party. It underscores that the real horror behind the anti-miscegenation laws was never simply about sex between the races. It was about keeping Black men away from White women. White men have had sex with Black women from the earliest days of slavery, sometimes raping them with impunity.

However, unlike many White men who impregnated young Black women, Thurmond did take an interest in his daughter and made sure that she was able to attend college. This was before the days of DNA testing, and I believe that it is an indication that Mr. Thurmond did love his daughter, even though his love was profoundly defective. Observing the now public, Mrs. Washington-Williams, one is struck with her grace and humility in how she honored her late father by keeping the family secret as long as he was alive.

One is also struck by the cowardice of Senator Thurmond. Why could not a man who flew a glider into Normandy on D-day have had the moral courage to have recognized his daughter and brought her into his family before his death? What would it have cost him to do this near the end of his political career? It would have spared the rest of his family much humiliation had the patriarch been the instrument of reconciliation, instead of the coward who knew what they would likely face after his death. It would have given substance to the claim that he was a changed man. And his now greatly tarnished reputation as one of the greatest hypocrites in history would have been replaced by that of a humble man who had the moral courage to acknowledge his frailties and embrace his family in their need.

Some of Thurmond’s speeches now seem almost unbelievable in light of his family’s acknowledgment that Essie Mae Washington-Williams is the Senator’s daughter, as when he addressed the 1948 States Rights convention: “But I want to 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 N.i.g.g.e.r.* race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches.”  (*Some folks state that Senator Thurmond used the word “Negro” or “Niggrah?” Listen to the voice clip and decide for yourself.)

How in the world could a man who knew he had a Black child and Black grandchildren have become the driving force in splitting the Democratic Party over Harry Truman’s 1948 civil rights package, fighting Truman over such issues as a Federal anti-lynching law?

As I think of the hypocrisy of the hero of my childhood, I am reminded that there is something worse than hypocrisy
a hypocritical society at least has some consciousness of sin. But a society that has turned its back on the very concept of sin and flaunts its immorality without shame, is a society most ripe for the judgment of God: “The look on their faces testifies against them; they parade their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! They have brought disaster upon themselves.” (Isaiah 3:9.) “Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when they are punished, says the LORD.” (Jeremiah 6:15; 8:12.)  At least the covert racism of modern America affords African-Americans opportunities undreamed of in the past.

I will not judge Senator Thurmond by what I imagine that I might do in similar circumstances – anybody who would do that is simply a fool. In the final analysis, he is not significantly more morally bankrupt than the rest of humankind, certainly not more than me. My only hope is the Lord Jesus Christ and God’s “amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.” If Strom Thurmond, in spite of his sins and hypocrisy, truly repented of his sins and put his trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, then he is in heaven. If not, then he would gladly trade all of the power and fame that he possessed in this life to be given one last opportunity to escape the judgment of a holy God.

The beauty of the gospel is that the Son of God, without ceasing to be God, became a real human being, just like you and me, except for sin.  He died on the cross as our Substitute, taking the guilt and the consequences of our sins on himself. He arose from the dead and sent the Holy Spirit that we might enjoy a changed life.  The moment that a person turns from his sins and embraces the Lord Jesus in simple faith, his sins are put to Christ’s account, and Christ’s righteousness is put to his account.  Instead of standing on the pedestal on your own self-righteousness, condemning Senator Thurmond, why not turn from your sins and cast yourself on God’s mercy in Christ?

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37.)

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28.)

Bob Vincent

Written on December 22, 2003, Revised on December 13, 2004 to include a link to Mrs. Washington-Williams’ soon to be released memoir, Dear Senator