That the Washington chapter of the National...

ON HEARING

March 09, 1995|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

ON HEARING that the Washington chapter of the National Urban League was planning to honor Sen. Strom Thurmond, Kweisi Mfume said he asked himself, "if this was the same Strom Thurmond I grew up with in this country."

The obvious answer is, "Everybody grew up with this Strom Thurmond!" He has been in the public eye (and on the public payroll) since the year Bob Dole was born, 1923.

In the year Representative Mfume was born, 1948, Senator Thurmond ran for president as a "Dixiecrat." He and other Southerners walked out on the Democratic Party to protest the platform's civil rights plank.

In 1954 he was elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate, resigned and re-ran and won as a Democrat in 1956, gave a 24-hour and 22-minute speech against a civil rights bill in 1957, switched parties in 1964 to become a Republican, after that party chose Sen. Barry Goldwater, who voted against the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, as its presidential nominee.

That Senator Thurmond is deserving of no respect from a civil rights organization like the Urban League. But the real answer to Mfume's question is, "This isn't the Thurmond we grew up with."

This is the Strom Thurmond who, after the Voting Rights Act of 1965 led to a big increase in black voters in South Carolina, became one of the first Southern senators to hire black staff members, to nominate a black for a federal judgeship and to vote for several civil rights bills. Which brings me to my favorite Thurmond story (which is a fable in more ways than one):

During a Southern filibuster against a civil rights bill in 1960, I was told, Strom was laying it on in a Senate speech, and his South Carolina colleague, Sen. Olin Johnston, who had just finished a similar speech, said loud enough to be heard in the galleries, "Lissena ol' Strum, he rilly believes that ----!" I used to tell that story all the time. One day I told it to Harry Ashmore, the famous editor. "That's wrong," he said.

Ashmore had worked for Adlai Stevenson during the 1956 presidential primaries. He said he asked his old friend Senator Johnston if, for Adlai's sake, he could get Thurmond to postpone until after the primaries a Southern senators' "Manifesto" attacking desegregation. Most Southern senators were for Stevenson. He would be embarrassed.

But Johnston said he couldn't. Why? "Because Ol' Strum really believes that ----!" Ashmore's story was embellished over the years and became the one I later heard.

Now, the way I look at it, Representative Mfume, is that what the Urban League really honored was neither the old Strom nor the new Strom, but rather the black voters who overcame his and other Southern politicians' bitter -- sometimes bloody -- defense of the 20th century version of the Lost Cause.

Strom Thurmond didn't really believe that ----.

Moral: Democracy works.

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