Richard Brian McCarty
Edgefield County, SC was a poor rural county with an inadequate school system in 1928. A 26 year old school teacher announced his candidacy for county school superintendent to change that. With the energy of an accomplished athlete, and political instincts that showed his promise, he won that election and brought up the school system.
Some 68 years later, Edgefield County is still a rural county, though a statue of that young man now graces the town square. The man himself stood last Tuesday night upon a podium in Columbia, SC, elected for the ninth time to the United States Senate by the voters of South Carolina. His eyes looked upon the crowd with the energy his 93 year old body no longer has. Indeed, Senator Strom Thurmond had affirmed, one last time, that he is a legend in his own time. And, what made him a legend is a dedication to people and to principles that South Carolina and America may never see again.
His dedication to the people of South Carolina comes from a genuine love of them. Throughout his long career, he has made it his prime objective to serve the people. He attends little known festivals when invited. He writes sympathy and congratulation notes. He remembers everyone's daddy or grandpa.
Recently, I had the opportunity to see his concern for people up close on one of his campaign bus tours through South Carolina. There were several customary political stops, but there was one stop that defined Strom Thurmond, and separated him from any other politician I have ever been around.
One of Thurmond's friends in Easley, SC had suffered a death in the family. When Thurmond learned of it, the motorcade wound its way through the back streets of Easley to the small home of the Senator's friend. There was no press corps there. They had gone on elsewhere. Senator Thurmond, his daughter, and a couple of other politicians who were on the bus with him, went into the home and paid their respects. Afterwards, we were on our way to the next stop.
Other politicians would have sent a note, for sure. But, they would have probably been worrying about the plane they had to catch or the next stop on the tour. While others talk of "loving the folks," Strom Thurmond does. I can't imagine what other United States senator would take time out from a close campaign to stop at a little home that was full of people who were certain to support him anyway. He showed that his first loyalty was with his friends. And that is a rarity in politics.
As for his commitment to principles, history will probably record his long filibuster opposing the Civil Rights Act. He did so because he thought it to be unconstitutional. However, history may overlook, that as Governor of SC, he appointed the first African American to the State Medical Board. He did that in 1947, long before such acts could be called in vogue. I believe he saw the changes that were coming, even though he acted by the will of the people in carrying out the segregation laws of the time. Only someone as sincere as Thurmond could survive past segregation after enforcing such laws by saying, " It was the law at the time, and I had to enforce it." Folks know he is committed to the idea of law and to the will of the people without other motives. And, as a result, exit polls showed that the former segregationist governor, and white conservative Republican got over twenty percent of the black vote in last Tuesday's election.
History may also note that he is the only man elected to the United States Senate by a write in campaign. But, perhaps it will not tell the whole story and the principles behind it, and how it defines Strom Thurmond. It was 1954, and Strom Thurmond had been out of public life for four years after being defeated for the United States Senate in 1950. He was out of politics and was enjoying practicing law. Then, the incumbent United States Senator died. As a result the Democratic party chose a candidate for the seat without a primary.
Thurmond clearly saw a wrong. Since the primary was the real election in South Carolina, he resented the idea that the Democratic party bosses, and not the people would decide who was to be Senator for six years. So, he ran a write in campaign. His commitment was to the people, not the party. But, to show he respected the party faithful, he promised to resign in 1956, and run in the Democratic primary for the seat if he was elected on the write in. He was written in to history, and he resigned two years later, as promised, and ran for election in the primary, and won.
That beginning to his Senate career showed everyone what to expect from Strom Thurmond. He would do what he believed was right for the people of South Carolina, and America, even if it went against the status quo. He switched to the Republican party in 1964. He supported Richard Nixon in 1968 when other Southern politicians were lining up behind George Wallace. He voted for the Martin Luther King holiday, when other politicians from the segregationist era would have cringed at the notion. He worked to protect the textile industry jobs in South Carolina even when it conflicted with Ronald Reagan's policies. Yes, that write in campaign showed he had his finger on the pulse of the people, because he took the time to know and care about the people he represented first.
Now, history writes the last chapter of one of the last true men of the people. His age
has slowed him, but what his life has stood for will live long beyond his extended life.
It all started with a concern about the state of the schools in which he taught. It now
approaches its ending with an example of how honesty, principled leadership, and
commitment to people transcends party, politics itself, and time. And, even if it is found
in a 93 year old man, the elusive thing known as statesmanship is still alive, and dare I
say well, in politics today in South Carolina. South Carolina, and America, is fortunate
to have it for a few more years. Thank you, Senator Thurmond, for being a champion for the
people of South Carolina.
Richard Brian McCarty has worked on several political campaigns of conservatives. He holds a Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina and a BS degree from Lander University. An experienced writer, McCarty's columns are written from a distinctly Southern point of view. He is sometimes Southern, sometimes conservative, sometimes humorous, and sometimes all three.
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