James Strom Thurmond (December 5, 1902 – June 26, 2003) was an American politician who served for 48 years as a United States Senator from South Carolina.
He ran for president in 1948 as the States Rights Democratic Party candidate, receiving 2.4% of the popular vote and 39 electoral votes. Thurmond represented South Carolina in the United States Senate from 1954 until 2003, at first as a Democrat and, after 1964, as a Republican.
A magnet for controversy during his nearly half-century Senate career, Thurmond switched parties because of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, disaffection with the liberalism of the national party, and his support for the conservatism of the Republican presidential candidate Senator Barry Goldwater.
He left office as the only member of either house of Congress to reach the age of 100 while still in office, and as the oldest-serving and longest-serving senator in U.S. history (although he was later surpassed in length of service by Robert Byrd and Daniel Inouye).
Thurmond holds the record as the longest-serving member of Congress to serve exclusively in the Senate. He is also the longest-serving Republican member of Congress in U.S. history. At 14 years, he was also the longest-serving Dean of the United States Senate in U.S. history.
In opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957, he conducted the longest filibuster ever by a lone senator, at 24 hours and 18 minutes in length, nonstop. In the 1960s, he opposed the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 to end segregation and enforce the constitutional rights of African-American citizens, including suffrage.
He always insisted he had never been a racist, but was opposed to excessive federal authority. He attributed the movement to practice constitutional rights to Communist agitators. In 1948, Thurmond stated:
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.
Starting in the 1970s, he moderated his position on race, but continued to defend his early segregationist campaigns on the basis of states’ rights in the context of Southern society at the time. He never fully renounced his earlier viewpoints.
Six months after Thurmond died in 2003, his mixed-race, grown daughter Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that he was her father.
Her mother Carrie Butler had been 16 years old and working as his family’s maid when she became involved with Thurmond, who was 22.
Although Thurmond never publicly acknowledged Essie Mae Washington, he paid for her education at a historically black college and passed other money to her for some time.
She said that she kept silent out of respect for her father and denied that the two had agreed that she would not reveal her connection to Thurmond. His children by his marriage eventually acknowledged her. Her name has since been added as one of his children to his memorial at the state capital.
James Strom Thurmond was born on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina, the son of Eleanor Gertrude (Strom) (1870–1958) and John William Thurmond (1862–1934), a lawyer.
His ancestry included English and German. He attended Clemson Agricultural College of South Carolina (now Clemson University), where he was a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. Thurmond graduated in 1923 with a degree in horticulture.
After Thurmond’s death in 2003, an attorney for his family confirmed that in 1925, when he was 22, Thurmond fathered a mixed-race daughter, Essie Mae Washington, with his family’s housekeeper, Carrie Butler, then 16 years old.
Thurmond paid for the girl’s college education and provided other support. Essie Mae Washington was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle, and was not told about Thurmond as her father until she was in high school, when she met him for the first time.
After college, Thurmond worked as a farmer, teacher and athletic coach until 1929, when at age 27 he was appointed as Edgefield County’s superintendent of education, serving until 1933. Thurmond studied law with his father as a legal apprentice and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in 1930.
He was appointed as the Edgefield Town and County attorney, serving from 1930 to 1938. In 1933 Thurmond was elected to the South Carolina Senate and represented Edgefield until he was elected to the Eleventh Circuit judgeship.
Thurmond married his first wife, Jean Crouch (1926–1960), in the South Carolina Governor’s mansion on November 7, 1947.
In April 1947, when Crouch was a senior at Winthrop College, Thurmond was a judge in a beauty contest in which she was selected as Miss South Carolina. In June, upon her graduation, Thurmond hired her as his personal secretary. On September 13, 1947, Thurmond proposed marriage by calling Crouch to his office to take a dictated letter.
The letter was to her, and contained his proposal of marriage. Thirteen years later in 1960, Crouch died of a brain tumor at age 33; they had no children.
Thurmond married his second wife, Nancy Janice Moore (born 1946), on December 22, 1968. He was 66 years old and she was 22. She had won Miss South Carolina in 1965. Two years later, he hired her to work in his Senate office. They separated in 1991, but never divorced.
At age 68 in 1971, Thurmond fathered the first of four children with his second wife, Nancy, who was then 25.
The names of the children are Nancy Moore Thurmond (1971–1993), a beauty pageant contestant who was killed by a drunk driver; James Strom Thurmond, Jr. (born 1972), who became U.S. Attorney for the District of South Carolina and is the current South Carolina 2nd Judicial Circuit Solicitor; Juliana Gertrude (Thurmond) Whitmer (born 1974), who works for the American Red Cross in Washington, DC; and Paul Reynolds Thurmond (born 1976), who was elected as South Carolina State Senator representing District 41.
Thurmond died in his sleep on June 26, 2003, at 9:45 p.m. of heart failure at a hospital in Edgefield, South Carolina. He was 100 years old.
After lying in state in the rotunda of the State House in Columbia, his body was carried by a caisson to the First Baptist Church for services, where then-Senator Joe Biden delivered a eulogy, and later to the family burial plot in Willowbrook Cemetery in Edgefield, where he was interred.