COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — After a 100-year life that shifted from segregation to reconciliation, Strom Thurmond was eulogized yesterday by black and white, Democrat and Republican, as a man who redeemed himself by changing with the times.
Mr. Thurmond’s flag-draped casket, which was on display for three days in South Carolina’s Statehouse rotunda, was brought to the cavernous church by a horse-drawn caisson that clip-clopped through streets lined with mourners who watched silently in a drizzly rain.
Vice President Dick Cheney, who sat in the front row alongside Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, delivered the first in a string of eulogies remembering Mr. Thurmond’s storied political career.
“There has never been a political career quite like Strom Thurmond’s,” Mr. Cheney told a crowd of 3,000 in the First Baptist Church. “And unless medical science unlocks the secret of his vitality and energy, there probably won’t be a career like his ever again.”
Mr. Thurmond, who died Thursday, was the oldest and longest-serving senator ever when he retired in January after 48 years in Washington.
His career was marked by his 1948 presidential campaign, during which he ran on a Dixiecrat platform of segregation, and his authorship of the Southern Manifesto, in which he declared the Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education decision a “clear abuse of judicial power.”
Although Mr. Thurmond’s eulogists mentioned some of those events, they were careful not to do so with praise. Instead, they said Mr. Thurmond was a product of his time who had the courage to learn and to change.
They noted how he made a point of reaching out to blacks, being the first member of the Southern Republican congressional delegation to hire a black aide, in 1971, and coming full circle from his divisive past by voting in 1983 in favor of a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s fairly easy to say today that that was pure political expediency, but I choose to believe otherwise,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, who had an office next to Mr. Thurmond and was handpicked by his neighbor to deliver one of the eulogies.
“I choose to believe that Strom Thurmond was doing what few do once they pass the age of 50: He was continuing to grow, continuing to change.”
In the grandest funeral in South Carolina since Sen. John C. Calhoun was buried in 1850, Mr. Thurmond’s body was led out of the church by a military guard and a bagpiper playing “Amazing Grace.” The family followed behind the casket.
Mr. Thurmond’s body was to be taken from this city — where he led a segregated state as governor in the late 1940s — along the highway that bears his name, to a rural family burial plot in the town of Edgefield, where he was born and died.
Thousands unable to get into the church lined the streets. There were regular folks, men in suits and elderly woman with their grandchildren.
Some bowed their heads; others put their hands on their hearts. They watched quietly, reverently, then shuffled away after the caisson, black riderless horse and the family’s limousine passed.
Albert Jabs, a professor at the historically black Allen University in Columbia, said as he left the rotunda that any discussion of Mr. Thurmond’s legacy should focus on his reconciliation.
“Even a crooked line can be made straight over time,” Jabs said.