washingtonpost.com: Thurmond Paternity Claim Valid, Family Says (Washington Post, Tuesday, December 16, 2003; Page A01): After decades of denials, the family of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) acknowledged yesterday a claim made by a 78-year-old Los Angeles schoolteacher that she is the senator's mixed-race daughter, a charge that had dogged her throughout her otherwise quiet life and shadowed Thurmond during his public career as a leading voice of racial segregation. "As J. Strom Thurmond has passed away and cannot speak for himself, the Thurmond family acknowledges Ms. Essie Mae Washington-Williams' claim to her heritage," the lawyer for the Thurmond estate, J. Mark Taylor, said in a brief statement in Columbia, S.C. "We hope this acknowledgment will bring closure for Ms. Williams."
I have to admit, at one level, I do wonder what some of the fuss is. As the article notes, Rumors about Thurmond's fathering of a black child in his early life had circulated in South Carolina since at least the 1940s. And among some people, there will basically be a shrug and the statement, "These things happen," which is undeniable.
The news is unlikely to change anyone's opinion about Thurmond and his legacy, according to Don Fowler, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who knew Thurmond for 40 years. "People who loved Strom will say, 'That's just ol' Strom,' " Fowler said. "And the people who hated Strom will just say, 'That's the son of a bitch.' " If word of Thurmond's unacknowledged daughter had come out in the later years of his career, he probably could have weathered the scandal, Fowler said. Not so in his youth. "There was a time that, had it been known, it would have destroyed his political career," said Fowler, who said he had never heard the woman's name until it was published in The Post. "It would have been very damaging to him. It was inconsistent with his public image." [...] But when confronted over the years, Thurmond had maintained a stoic silence, saying the question was too undignified to warrant comment. His office had described Williams as a "family friend" and conceded in 1992 that she occasionally visited him in Washington.
On the one hand, one could say that, within the very tight strictures of his particular code of ethics, Thurmond does seem to have done right by his daughter. He did not deny that he had a mixed race daughter; he simply declared that the mere question was "too undignified to warrant comment." And there is no denying that there is no particularly dignified way to say, "So, Senator, we understand that you have a daughter by a black woman and you have been a towering hypocrite for lo these many years. Any comments?" (OK, granted that it could be put slightly better than that. Nonetheless, an inquiry into someone's sex life, especially in times gone by, would have been considered impertinent and undignified in the extreme. If the press was perfectly willing to collude in keeping FDR's affair a secret, and JFK's many many affairs a public secret, then how much more would they be willing to allow this to go uncommented?)
And yet ... and yet. Maybe not so much in his later career, but back in his prime Dixiecrat days, you do wonder how he managed to square his racial positions with the fact of his daughter. And how she managed it, for that matter.
(The picture in the CNN article is quite remarkable. Nobody looking at the two of them could doubt that she's, at the least, a relative of Thurmond's. A very close relative.)Posted by iain at December 16, 2003 11:17 AM