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Strom Thurmond's America

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Crespino, a professor at Emory University, details the explicit racism of Thurmond's early career, which, as the world changed around him, gave way to pragmatic efforts to avoid offending South Carolina's sizable black population. (North Carolina's Jesse Helms eventually replaced Thurmond as the Senate's resident firebrand: while Helms led a 1983 filibuster against honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. with a national holiday, Thurmond quietly voted in favor of the measure.) But Crespino is more interested in looking at Thurmond with a wider lens, arguing astutely that he wasn't simply a durable emblem of the racist Old Right but also a canny politician who helped facilitate the ascendance of post-World War II Sunbelt conservatism, which saw the parties realign as the GOP courted white voters in southern and southwestern states. (Thurmond finally, and dramatically, left the Democratic party in 1964 in order to declare himself a "Goldwater Republican.")

The Republican "southern strategy" depended on race-baiting, of course, but also involved maximizing the region's economic potential. Developing the South's business climate was "an imperative for [Thurmond] of no less importance than the politics of Jim Crow," Crespino notes. "But in fact he never had to choose between the two." Even as his open racism came to seem a relic of a bygone age, Thurmond remained committed to a pro-industry and anti-labor agenda. "He'll accept blacks now, but you still don't see Strom shaking hands with union people," a white South Carolina union rep noted drily in 1978. Thurmond, a staunch anti-Communist, also enthusiastically supported every Pentagon project to come down the pike, helping ensure the Sunbelt's participation in the spoils of the Cold War's military-industrial alliance.

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