Former Sen. Strom Thurmond, who rose from school superintendent to legendary politician, died Thursday night at 100. His sheer longevity was indeed remarkable, and his role in the ascension of the Republican Party in the South over the course of four decades is truly remarkable as well.
Mr. Thurmond was the oldest person to serve in Congress and the longest-serving member in Senate history — retiring in January after serving 48 years in that chamber. James Strom Thurmond began his career in 1929, when he was elected superintendent of education in Edgefield, S.C., his hometown. He would later serve as a member of the South Carolina Senate and a state judge. In 1946, just back from World War II, where he was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, Mr. Thurmond he was elected governor of South Carolina. Two years later, Mr. Thurmond ran unsuccessfully for president as candidate of the State’s Rights Party, which broke away from the Democratic Party over President Truman’s support for civil rights.
Mr. Thurmond was elected to the Senate in 1954, becoming the first write-in candidate ever to run successfully for the Senate. During his first 16 years, he stood like a stonewall against civil rights legislation, setting a Senate record by filibustering, for more than 24 hours straight, a 1957 civil rights bill backed by President Eisenhower. By the early 1970s, Mr. Thurmond began sponsoring blacks for federal judgeships and other jobs. In 1983, he backed a federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1968, Mr. Thurmond may have helped the nation avert a constitutional crisis, when LBJ sought to elevate a political crony, Justice Abe Fortas, to the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court. Mr. Thurmond’s parliamentary tenacity compelled Justice Fortas to ask that his nomination be withdrawn. A little more than five months later, Justice Fortas resigned from the court in disgrace, after revelations that a crooked financier had agreed to pay him $20,000 per year for the rest of his life.
Few politicians played as a pivotal a role as Mr. Thurmond in the political realignment of the South — which, until the early 1960s, had been one-party, Democratic territory. Mr. Thurmond changed this in 1964, when the Dixiecrat joined the Republican Party and campaigned for GOP nominee Barry Goldwater. South Carolina was one of just six states carried by Mr. Goldwater that year. But that was only the beginning of the Republican ascendancy in the South and Mr. Thurmond’s rising star in the Republican Party. In 1968, he helped Richard Nixon win the Republican nomination and stave off a tough challenge from American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. Thirty-two years later, Mr. Thurmond helped George W. Bush fend off a tough challenge from fellow Republican John McCain in the South Carolina primary.
Agree or disagree with him, Strom Thurmond was a legendary figure in American politics.