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Strom Thurmond, US champion of segregation, dies at age of 100

STROM Thurmond, the longest serving senator in the history of the United States and longtime champion of racial segregation, has died at the age of 100.

First elected to public office in his home state of South Carolina in 1932, he served 48 years in the Senate until his retirement in January. It seems safe to say US politics will not see his like again.

No wonder the South Carolina senator Ernest Hollings, a Democrat who served with Mr Thurmond for 35 years, said: "A great oak in the forest of public service has fallen."

Mr Thurmond will be best remembered for running for president in 1948 as a segregationist. He remained a robust opponent of civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s before accepting racial integration was inevitable.

His defection to the Republican Party in 1964 helped begin the process by which Democrats lost the South.

Although in recent years his hearing had gone and he had to be physically helped on to the Senate floor by aides - who could also be heard telling him which way to vote - he remained chairman of the Senate armed forces committee until the day before his 96th birthday. As the senior member of the Senate, he remained third in line of succession to the presidency, behind the vice-president and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

His legislative achievements were few but he played a key role in breaking the dominance of the Democratic Party in the South, opening the way for a realignment of US politics that has meant Democrats have occupied the White House for just 12 years since 1968.

Mr Thurmond ran for president in 1948 against Harry Truman, presenting himself as a "Dixiecrat" determined to champion states’ rights against what he viewed as the creeping encroachment, verging on totalitarianism, of the federal government.

He argued that segregation was a matter for individual states and once said: "There's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."

Mr Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, won more than a million votes and captured his home state plus Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The residual legacy of his campaign inadvertently claimed a final victim in December when the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, resigned after suggesting, at Mr Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that the United States "wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years" if Mr Thurmond had won.

After a defeat in 1950, Mr Thurmond finally was elected to the Senate in 1954. He never left, his unstinting devotion to South Carolina and mastery of pork-barrel politics ensured his re-election.

In his earlier days he was a vigorous opponent of the civil rights movement, which he believed was a communist-inspired plot.

He had been a comparatively progressive governor, improving black schools in South Carolina and urging the vigorous prosecution of a mob that lynched a black man accused of murdering a white taxi driver.

His most famous contribution came in 1957 when he set a record - still unbroken - for a Senate filibuster. In a doomed attempt to block a civil rights commission, Mr Thurmond, armed with throat lozenges and malted milk tablets, rose to his feet at 8:54pm on 28 August, 1957. He did not sit down until 9:12pm the following day.

Mr Thurmond had prepared for his marathon speech by eating a sirloin steak and taking a steam bath to dehydrate his body so he would not have to visit the loo.

Mr Thurmond’s conversion to integration was belated and based largely on political pragmatism. In 1970 he saw how the Republican candidate for South Carolina’s other Senate seat lost through standing up for "hard-core rednecks".

While he never won more than 20 per cent of the black vote in South Carolina, the support he did win was sufficient to prevent Democrats from creating a base to challenge him.

He endorsed Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964, leaving a Democratic Party he claimed was "leading the evolution of our country to a socialistic dictatorship". Four years later he helped Richard Nixon hold off Ronald Reagan’s challenge for the presidential nomination and helped design Nixon’s "Southern strategy", designed to appeal to disaffected whites in the South.

While other Southern Republicans opposed 1983 legislation making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, Mr Thurmond backed it. He explained in 1996: "Times change and people change, and people who can’t change don’t stay in office long."

Mr Thurmond enjoyed a reputation as a ladies’ man. During President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial - over which he presided - he flirted shamelessly with Mr Clinton’s female counsel. Ladies who shared a lift with him did so at their own risk it was said.

Born in 1902 when Mark Twain was alive and Theodore Roosevelt was president, he became a teacher before becoming a lawyer. He served with distinction in the 82nd Airborne Division, taking part in the Normandy invasion. He was elected state governor in 1947.

He did not marry until he was 44, proposing to his secretary, Jean Crouch, 20, in a memo he dictated to her.

The couple were happily married until her death from a brain tumour in 1960 but did not have children. Eight years later he married Nancy Moore, a former Miss South Carolina. She was 22, he was 66. They had four children and Mr Thurmond became a grandfather for the first time last week.

 
 
 

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