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Bidding Farewell to Senator Thurmond
December 7, 2002
By Rodney Jay C. Salinas

Senator Strom Thurmond, the oldest sitting and longest serving Member of the U.S. Senate, turned 100 years old this week. And while many in Washington and his home state of South Carolina have celebrated his milestone birthday, the rest of us are celebrating his departure. For when the 108th Congress convenes in January, Senator Thurmond will not be among the 100 individuals on the Senate floor.

Amidst all of the nicely written puff pieces about the Senator lately, the details of his racist acts have barely registered a blip on the radar screen. It is amazing how quickly we forget our history. Lest we forget, here’s a quick recap.

First, let’s begin with some background. James Strom Thurmond was born on December 5, 1902, in Edgefield, South Carolina. In 1902, Theodore Roosevelt was president, and Mark Twain was still writing books. Strom Thurmond has been alive for almost half of the entire history of the United States, and he has lived through 18 (out of 43) different U.S. presidents, so far.

When he was elected governor of South Carolina in 1946, Strom Thurmond was still receiving votes from Civil War veterans. To put things in better perspective, both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were born that year.

A few years later, in 1954, Strom Thurmond became Senator Strom Thurmond after an extensive government and press-sponsored campaign to teach the semi-literate South Carolina populace how to write his name. That same year, there were still only 48 states in the union.

Now with all that as background it is easy to see why Senator Thurmond has had such a poor record of service to people of color and minorities in this country. If nothing else, Senator Thurmond is a victim of his generation.

Senator Thurmond has set many records during his time in the U.S. Senate, including holding the record for the longest filibuster in history at 24 hours and 18 minutes, in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act. A few years before that, Harry Truman encouraged the Democratic Party to take up the cause of civil rights at the 1948 convention. Instead, Senator Thurmond, a Democrat at the time, left the Party and ran for president as an independent. Thankfully, he lost.

Senator Thurmond is also on record for fighting against school desegregation. And in 1967, when Thurgood Marshall was nominated as the first Black justice of the Supreme Court, Senator Thurmond badgered the nominee at the confirmation hearing with 60 obscure legal questions.

The current story behind Senator Thurmond is that he is a changed man. By the 1970s, he reportedly saw the error of his ways and began to change his attitude and perception of Blacks and other minorities. He had even begun to hire Blacks to work in his office and support some of their most beloved causes.

By 1970, he was already 68 years old. There are not too many people his age that are willing to simply change their ways that quickly. If so, great.

But if you ask me, Senator Thurmond did not voluntarily change his spots, he was forced to do it. Faced with a changing demographic landscape, the racist Senators of yesteryear were quickly becoming extinct. And if Senator Thurmond did not adjust with the changing times, the voters might have cast their ballots differently.

Without a doubt, the Senator’s handlers, the folks behind the scenes who greatly influence the Senator, surely must have realized the changing tone in American politics. The days of segregation were gone, and those who continued to embrace it were doomed to retirement. South Carolina, a state with otherwise little clout or influence in the Senate, relied on Senator Thurmond to “bring home the bacon.”

In his decades in office, the Senator has helped shepherd millions of dollars into the state’s economy and had kept the best interests of his state at the top of the Senate agenda. And because he is such an integral part of state’s well being, Senator Thurmond’s mere presence on the Senate floor was enough. And that’s exactly what happened for the last ten years.

Bound to a motorized wheelchair, the Senator has spent virtually every night of the last ten years at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The only time he left the hospital was to cast his vote, even though many Senate insiders claim that he often did not even know what he was voting in favor of or against.

In the final analysis, we do not live in a vacuum. Each of us is a product of our generation and upbringing. And for that, I hold no grudge against Senator Thurmond.

Nevertheless, we each must be held accountable for our actions – past and present. Not only was Senator Thurmond a bigot, he tried everything in his power as a Senator to stop some of the most significant improvements for racial minorities in American history. I can only hope that his brand of bigotry and racism leave with Senator Thurmond as he exits the Senate chambers at the end of the month.

 
Rodney Jay C. Salinas is President of the Rainmaker Political Group LLC and Publisher of PoliticalCircus.com, an online source for political news and information for the Asian Pacific American community. He can be contacted at mail@rainmakerpolitical.com.

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