December 18, 2003

A PUBLIC man, a private heart, a Southern secret, a daughter's duty: In setting straight the record of her birthright, a retired Los Angeles schoolteacher yesterday confirmed the power of decency to trump a scandal.

"I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I feel completely free," announced the mixed-race and out-of-wedlock daughter of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.

With that, she spared her four children, 13 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren the lifetime burden to which she'd been a conspirator: She endured almost eight decades of rumor, whispers, innuendo. She'd been photographed by civil rights activists, pursued by reporters, harrumphed about in Southern newspapers. Mr. Thurmond's enemies had hoped to use her to undermine his segregationist campaign for the presidency.

Yet her name has been omitted from monuments to and biographies of this leader of the Republican revival in the South. Her name was never uttered while he ranted for 24 hours against a 1957 civil rights bill, the longest speech ever on the Senate floor, never written as a footnote in the shifting sands of Southern politics, which is the story of her father's career.

"I am not bitter. I am not angry," Ms. Washington-Williams said.

What she has put to rest will stir the pages of history for a time: Though many in his immediate circle knew her or knew of her, she was identified only as a "family friend" in public - and she herself chose to say no more until now. Close associates now have come forward to acknowledge that in private, he welcomed her visits, sometimes visited her, paid her college expenses and arranged other financial support. He even spoke of his obligation to the child he bore with a black maid from his father's home when he was only 22; she was 16.

History is due only a revised accounting of his contradictions. Matters of the heart are unknowable now; we must assume that's as he wanted it. Only Mr. Thurmond could have explained how he separated his racist ideals from his role as a father. If having a black child influenced his mellowing, over the course of his seven-decade political career, from Dixiecrat to supporter of the King holiday, he took those thoughts to his grave.

But whatever private moments they may have shared as father and daughter they quite deliberately made their business, not ours. One hopes they shall be preserved as such, so as not to tarnish the dignified and eloquent handling of the Thurmond legacy's denouement by the woman whom history must record as his daughter.

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