In 1948, the segregationist governor of South Carolina was so infuriated by President Harry Truman’s moves to desegregate the U.S. Army and enact anti-lynching legislation that he left the Democratic fold and accepted the presidential nomination of openly-racist States’ Rights Party
Strom Thurmond campaigned for the presidency as the original "segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" candidate. He preached his gospel of hate across the south, wit the line: "I wanna 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 nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
That message only won him 2.4 percent of the national vote. But his candidacy began a long journal of southern segregationists from the Democratic Party of the birth, through the independent and third-party politics of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s and, ultimately, into a Republican Party that abandoned its founding principles in order to accommodate people who thought "Lincoln" was a four-letter word.
Thurmond, who served five decades in the U.S. Senate, mostly as a Republican, never fully renounced his Dixiecrat past or politics. Indeed, his influence remained such that, upon his retirement in 2003, then Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, so enthusiastically hailed Thurmond’s 1948 segregationist campaign that Lott had to relinquish his leadership post.
Lott’s praise was sincere. He knew, as do most older pols in the south, that Strom Thurmond built the model Republican Party in the region, leading generations of segregationists out of the Democratic fold and into the GOP as backers of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Herbert Walker Bush and George Walker Bush.
Few names are more closely associated with the GOP’s degeneration from the "party of Lincoln" to what it is today than "Thurmond."
So, surely, it is worthy of note that, in Tuesday’s primary to nominate the Republican candidate for an open U.S. House seat in the old Dixiecrat’s home state, Thurmond’s son was defeated by an African-American candidate.
It wasn’t even close.
State Representative Tim Scott, South Carolina’s first black Republican legislator in a century, beat Paul Thurmond, a county official for whom great things had been predicted, by a whopping 69-31 margin.
David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, perhaps the wisest analyst of African-American political progress in the country, cautions against thinking that the Scott-Thumond race was a test of progress for South Carolina or the Republican Party in the south.
Scott, argues Bostitis, is an anomaly rather than a harbinger of a progressive surge in the deepest of deep south states. "It certainly is a changing country in a lot of places in the country, yes," Bositis explained. "(But) South Carolina is not one of those places, not by a long shot."
Surely, this is true, as the ugly character of recent campaigning in the state so amply illustrates.
And Scott ran at least as far to the right as Thurmond. Indeed, it was Scott who hit the campaign trail preaching that President Obama’s health-care reforms represent "a step toward socialism." That won him an endorsement from Sarah Palin, just as it should earn him a skeptical response from who prefer their politics with at least one lump of realism.
Yet, those who prefer his politics and those who do not should be able to agree on one thing: Tim Scott laid down a historical marker Tuesday.
In the heart of Dixie, in the state that was spawned the States’ Rights Party and then merged that party’s politics into the GOP, it should mean something that Strom Thurmond’s son just got beat in a Republican primary.
And it should mean something more that the man who beat him was African-American.
As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who wrangled a good deal with the elder Thurmond, liked to point out: the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. It bends too slowly, to be sure, but when the name Thurmond is no longer "magic" in South Carolina Republican primaries, it is bending — at least a little bit — in the right direction.