By Leonard Pitts
“All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”
— Strom Thurmond
So I guess ol’ Strom didn’t mind a little integration after all.
Granted, he made opposition to it the cornerstone of a political career that took him to the South Carolina statehouse and the U.S. Senate. True, he ran for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform. Yes, he staged American history’s longest filibuster in an effort to block a 1957 civil rights bill.
But back when he was in his 20s, Thurmond apparently had no qualms at all about integrating with his family’s 16-year-old black maid.
The result of that union is Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old retired teacher from Los Angeles who addressed a news conference in Columbia, S.C., last week. “My father’s name was James Strom Thurmond,” she said.
She had kept it secret all her life for fear of damaging his career. Thurmond, who died in June at age 100, sent money over the years, apparently for her silence. She seems to have cared for him and believes he cared for her, too. Unfortunately, he didn’t care enough to stop oppressing black people, which is what she considers herself. Blood may be thicker than water, but politics is thicker than both.
One senses the media’s uncertainty with how this story should be framed. A radio anchor called it “surprising.”
“60 Minutes II” made it warm and fuzzy, the tale of a father’s affection for a daughter he couldn’t claim.
Given that a TV movie turned Thomas Jefferson’s liaison with Sally Hemings into a “forbidden love” soap opera, I guess I should count my blessings. At least no one has tried to cast the senator and his maid as Carolina’s answer to Romeo and Juliet.
Still, the media uncertainty is disappointing. What Thurmond did was hardly unique. From slavery through Jim Crow, it was common for young white men to test their sexual wings with black women their families owned or employed. Women who could not say no.
This, at a time when the black man who so much as cast a stray glance at a white woman risked torture, murder and mutilation from white men crying rape. Indeed, a black porter once let a white woman fall to the ground rather than steady her as she stumbled from his train and have his intentions fatally misconstrued.
If it all sounds absurd and hypocritical, well, those are two words that attach quite handily to Thurmond’s racial legacy. And to the nation’s.
We tend to think of race as an unbreachable wall, black over here, white over there. But America is full of Essie Mae Washington-Williamses, full of people who fall on both sides. After all, white men spent centuries sneaking across the color line they themselves had erected in order to bed black cooks and maids. African Ancestry, a company that uses DNA to trace African-American lineage, reports that fully 30 percent of its clients discover their paternity lies not in Africa, but Europe.
It’s a drama that has played out a million times. A million black women, a million babies, a million white men.
It is said this particular white man changed in later years as the civil rights movement he had opposed gave the ballot to black voters. He was, bless his heart, one of the first senators to hire a black aide.
And yet there was still this daughter, forbidden to call him father. For all he may have done and felt for her, he still saw his oldest child as a shameful secret. Could not bring himself, even at the end, to publicly acknowledge her.
That’s not a surprise or a warm and fuzzy tale.
It’s just a fresh reminder of the hypocrisy of bigotry, the fluidity of identity. Just evidence that American lives are often American lies.
And that race is the biggest lie of them all.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: