Strom Thurmond's story demands a screenwriter who can peer back through decades of political mendacity to the tortured, secretive life of the American South eight decades ago. The film might begin with a black maid who works for the Thurmond family in Edgefield, South Carolina. Then we could meet the young master, a schoolteacher who wins his first election in 1924 and becomes, at age 21, the youngest school trustee in state history. That same year he celebrates a famous ritual of his race. He impregnates the maid, who is 15 years old.
He settles down to make a career in law and becomes a state senator. At his law office one day he meets, for the first time, his 16-year-old daughter, the woman we now know as Essie Mae Washington-Williams. She's been growing up with relatives in Philadelphia. She comes to his office with her mother, Thurmond's sometime lover (did their relationship last one night or five years?), who is suffering from a fatal kidney disease and wants to make this introduction before she dies.
Father and daughter talk for 20 minutes and he calls her "a very lovely daughter." She, too, is pleased. She exhibits, apparently, the amazing grace that will set the tone of her reactions for the rest of her life. Of that first meeting she will later tell a reporter: "I was very happy. I knew I had a father somewhere, and it was wonderful to meet him." Later he sends her money. Many who are close to him suspect she's his daughter but when asked about it she will always insist that he's just her helpful friend. To say otherwise, she believes, would harm his career.
Finally, this week, at age 78, with Thurmond finally beyond harm (he died in June, aged 100), she lets the truth be known. She thus enters history as one more character in the drama of sex and race that has always been central to American life.
For generations the South lived a fantasy of racial purity. In truth, "race" and "purity" can't honestly be used in the same sentence: A study of Europe, for instance, reveals that it's an ethnic stew, made up of so many different racial elements that it would be impossible to find anything remotely deserving the term "pure." Yet the idea of racial purity took root in the South and many Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting against the corruption of the white race by the black. They also believed they were fighting to save the purity of Southern womanhood.
In Thurmond's home town, as elsewhere across the South, sex between races, miscegenation, was a crime -- even if sanctified by the church. Maryland passed the first anti-miscegenation law in 1661. The last one disappeared from the statute books in Alabama only three years ago, finally struck down in a popular referendum. That gesture was empty as well as tardy, since a 1967 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court had declared it unconstitutional. Because the fear of miscegenation now seems outlandish or shameful, Americans don't celebrate the hero and heroine of that case, Richard and Mildred Loving. They married in Washington, D.C. and moved to Virginia. One night as they slept in their bed they were awakened by a policeman who took them to jail and charged them under Virginia's miscegenation law. They appealed their conviction, and Loving v. Virginia made all miscegenation laws invalid.
That, and much else, was accomplished against the wishes of Strom Thurmond. From the 1940s through the 1960s, as a U.S. senator, he was the leading American segregationist. He fought bitterly every federal proposal to better the lives of the blacks, even laws to ensure ordinary voting rights. He wanted Negroes kept down, in all possible ways. In 1948 he ran for president as the candidate of the States Rights Democratic Party, the Dixiecrats.
He promised, of course, to support laws against miscegenation. "I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "that there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches." He carried four southern states. On election day, his daughter Essie Mae was 23 years old.
The fact that someone so reeking of fraudulence could last so long (he broke the Senate record for longevity) passes a harsh judgement on southern voters. And, of course, on Thurmond. How could he live, for many decades, a life grounded in hypocrisy?
The answer is that he acted within a familiar tradition. The genetic evidence (millions of Americans in a multitude of shades of brown) proves that southern men did in private what they deplored in public. They knew they had violated their principles, and some violated them throughout their lives. Surely personal guilt was a major factor in fuelling their angry response to the civil rights movement and their continuing love, even today, for the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy. A love they believed was shameful became the dark and dreadful subtext of American politics.