WILLIAMS: Strom Thurmond and Essie Mae

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ANALYSIS/OPINION

People die, but the truth lives and breathes freely on its own.

We now mourn the passing of 87-year-old Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who in December 2003 confirmed one of the oldest rumors in Southern political folklore: She was the mixed-race daughter of former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Mrs. Williams, whose mother worked as a maid in the Thurmond family home, was long rumored to be Mr. Thurmond’s daughter. In 1968, Robert Sherrill alleged that Mr. Thurmond had fathered a mixed race child, and in 1972, the front page of a South Carolina newspaper announced that the senator had fathered a “colored offspring.” By 1992, The Washington Post was referring to Mrs. Williams as Mr. Thurmond’s “supposed daughter.”

During the senator’s lifetime, Thurmond’s family and staffers repeatedly denied the claim, describing Mrs. Williams as merely a friend of the family. Through my long working relationship with the senator, I knew otherwise.

Our relationship went far back; I began working for Sen. Thurmond in 1978. Nearly 20 years later, at a 1996 Washington Urban League ceremony, the senator and I were honored for our work in promoting peace and good will between black and white Americans. Backstage, he leaned over to me and said, “You know, I have deep roots in the black community deep roots.” His voice softened into a raspy whisper, “You’ve heard the rumors.”

“Are they just rumors, Senator?” I asked.

“I’ve had a fulfilling life,” cackled Mr. Thurmond, winking salaciously.

The subject came up again while the senator and I were attending a South Carolina State football game in Orangeburg. He mentioned how he had arranged for Mrs. Williams to attend the college while he was governor. (Thurmond caused quite a stir when his official car rolled onto the campus for a visit.)

“When a man brings a child in the world, he should take care of that child,” he told me, and added, “She’ll never say anything and neither will you. Not while I’m alive.” He showed me where she lived while attending S.C. State and admitted to supporting her financially. Though he didn’t say outright that she was his daughter, the senator’s remarks left little to interpret.

Then there was a private conversation we had years back. Sen. Thurmond had been ill frequently at the time and given to spontaneous bouts of nostalgia. He mentioned how proud he was that he was able to maintain a close relationship with Mrs. Williams. Beaming with pride, he talked about how she called him and sometimes took him to task when she didn’t agree with statements he made. Perhaps he saw some of his own tenacity reflected back in her. Mr. Thurmond also mused about the disconnect between what politicians sometimes espoused publicly back during the de jure segregation era and what they did in their private lives.

This point was not lost on civil rights leaders. They collected pictures of Mrs. Williams on campus to use as political ammunition against Thurmond, a noted segregationist who filibustered the Civil Rights Act and ran for president on the segregationist States’ Rights Democratic Party ticket.

But Mrs. Williams never confirmed the rumors. For 78 years, she honored the senator’s request that no one know the truth about their relationship. During his lifetime, she placed the senator’s political career ahead of any desire to be recognized.

Now that Essie Mae has passed on, there will be a few days of dissecting their relationship again and reminding the public that the senator was ashamed of his daughter. But this was not the case.

In a conversation I had with Mrs. Williams years ago, she told me how she and her father finally bonded before his death in 2003. Mrs. Williams’ passing is more about her legacy with her children, grandchildren and her larger community than about her being the mixed-race child of legendary South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond. While the media continue making the connection between the two, let us also resolve to tell the public about her life beyond her famous father: Essie Mae Williams was a well-educated leader, organizer, philanthropist and strategist, and a servant of God her entire life.

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