Strom Thurmond, Longest Serving Senator, Dies At 100
Thurmond’s son, Strom, Jr., said his father passed away at 9:45 pm EDT Thursday at a hospital in Edgefield, S.C.
“Surrounded by family, my father was resting comfortably without pain and in total peace,” Strom Thurmond, Jr. said in a statement released by the hospital.
In Washington, the Senate stopped a late-night debate on a Medicare reform proposal when word reached the floor at 11:00 pm. Senate Majority Bill Frist announced the news on the Senate floor.
“A close friend, a confidant, a colleague to most of us in this body, Strom Thurmond, passed away,” Frist told his colleagues.
“It was a century ago when Mark Twain was alive and Teddy Roosevelt was president and James Strom Thurmond was born in South Carolina and at that time began a life really unmatched in public service,” Frist said.
Others also commented on Thurmond’s extraordinary political life.
“He served his country as senator, governor and state legislator and was a beloved teacher, coach, husband, father and grandfather,” President Bush said in a statement Friday. “While campaigning across South Carolina with him in 1988, I saw firsthand the tremendous love he had for his constituents, and the admiration the people of South Carolina had for him.”
Democratic Sen. Ernest Hollings, who served more than thirty years as South Carolina’s junior senator, said “a giant oak in the forest of public service” had fallen.
“In many respects he fought, lived, contributed, legislated in a way that will be written about and commented about for years and decades to come,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said. “But I think as we consider his contribution tonight, we can say as we consider the opportunity that we had to serve with him — Republicans and Democrats — it was our privilege to do so.”
Historians said Thurmond’s political life, which began with his election as Edgefield County superintendent of education in 1929, marked many of the trends of southern politics in the last 60 years.
Before he entered the national political stage, he served with distinction in World War Two. He took a leave of absence as a circuit judge in South Carolina to volunteer to pilot a glider behind enemy lines with the 82nd Airborne Division during the Normandy D-Day invasion. He earned 18 decorations for his service, including the Purple Heart. After the war, he returned to politics and South Carolina.
A Democrat and segregationist, Thurmond championed efforts to keep whites and blacks separate. He was elected South Carolina governor in 1946 as a Democrat, but quickly came to oppose many of the moves being made by his national party.
Enraged by then-President Harry Truman’s push to integrate the U.S. Army in 1948, Thurmond mounted a campaign for president on the States Rights’ Democratic Party, or Dixiecrat Party. Although Truman won reelection, Thurmond won four southern states — Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — and garnered 39 Electoral College votes.
In 1954, Thurmond returned to politics, running as a write-in candidate for the U.S. Senate against the Democratic nominee. Thurmond defeated Edgar Brown in the primary and went on to win in the general election, becoming the first candidate ever elected by a write-in vote.
His early years in the U.S. Senate were marked by strident opposition to what he saw as federal intrusion on states’ rights. Many of the issues he argued against centered on emerging civil rights laws. In 1956, joined by 18 other senators, Thurmond issued a “Southern Manifesto” that argued against the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas.
“We regard the decisions of the Supreme Court in the school cases as a clear abuse of judicial power. It climaxes a trend in the Federal Judiciary undertaking to legislate, in derogation of the authority of Congress, and to encroach upon the reserved rights of the States and the people,” the senators wrote.
A year later, Thurmond earned a place in the Senate’s history books.
“Mr. President, I rise to speak against the so-called voting rights bill, H.R. 6127,” Thurmond said at approximately 9pm on August 28, 1957. He would not stop speaking against it for twenty-four hours, eighteen minutes, the longest filibuster in Senate history.
A former aide said he only relented after doctors threatened to force him to quit amid concern about kidney damage, according to the book “Strom Thurmond and the Politics of Southern Change” by Nadine Cohodas.
Despite his efforts, the bill passed.
He continued to move further and further from the national Democratic Party. When President Lyndon Johnson, who had introduced the most sweeping civil rights bill in history, ran as the party’s nominee, Thurmond had had enough. He left the Democrats, becoming a Republican and campaigning for Barry Goldwater.
As his work continued in the Senate, he maintained a strong conservative voice, but softened his position on race in America.
“Over the past century, America has become a more free, a more fair and a more compassionate nation. And, over the past century, Senator Thurmond has also grown,” Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) said during a tribute in 2002.
In the 107th Congress — his last — Thurmond remained an active legislator, sponsoring 65 bills that reflected his strong beliefs. Bills he backed included allowing voluntary prayer in school and recognizing the importance of historically black colleges and universities. He cosponsored another 108, including the authorization of the use of force in Iraq and a day to recognize the dangers of hate crimes.
He was the oldest sitting and longest serving member of the Senate, casting more than 15,000 votes before retiring in Jan. 2003.
Thurmond is survived by his wife Nancy Moore Thurmond, a daughter Julie, sons Strom Jr. and Paul, and his first grandchild, a baby boy born this month.