The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Strom Thurmond's miscegenation brings out the Jefferson Smith in some

[Earlier piece on December 14]

Over at the San Diego Union-Tribune, there's a seasonal flurry about the inclusion next to the funnies of an advice column on telling kids that Santa Claus does not exist.

I'm wondering whether some of those reacting to the news that the late reformed Dixiecrat had (it seems) fathered a mulatto [1] bastard, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, on his father's Negro maid might be as shocked as young San Diegans to have that intelligence about the regrettably fictional Mr Claus.

For instance, over at the Volokhs, a piece by Duke University Professor Stuart Benjamin seems particularly other-worldly:
So the choices with Thurmond seem to be that either he was a hypocrite or someone who would say anything to get elected, even if he disagreed with the words he was saying.

Now, we English are traditionally supposed (for reasons that pass my understanding) to believe that Americans don't do satire; and if that is what this is, then I'm quite happy to put my hand up and admit that I didn't get it.

I suspect, though, that he's deadly serious. Which would imply that he wasn't aware that the entire Southern attitude to inter-racial sex from 1789 (to pick a date more or less at random) and 1965 (ditto) was utterly hypocritical. It was never - so far as I'm aware - generally felt that the iron rule against miscegenation - the Southern equivalent of the bloody shirt, waved furiously at any proposal for ameliorating the conditions of Negro life - applied to discreet liaisons between white men and Negro women.

And the fact can surely be read in the faces of many of those of African descent in America today: those light shades aren't all down to bleach!

And most of the folks - men and women - who voted for Strom for Governor in 1946, and for US Senator in 1950 and later elections will have known the score: indeed, the volume of the rumours and the minimal precautions he seemed content with taking rather imply that he didn't think the voters would have held his indiscretion against him. (Always providing it remained in the realm of rumour - and they did not have their noses rubbed in the fact.)

Interesting on the subject is Sex and Racism by Calvin C Hernton (1965), which looks at race/sex mythology, North and South, but, mostly, South. His chapter on The White Man (p80ff) begins with a personal anecdote: the author is fifteen in Athens, GA, and is accosted in the street by a shabbily dressed, inebriated white man who casually enquires:
Boy, can you tell me where I can get some Negra pussy?

The guy, in his own mind, had evidently merely crossed the tracks to purchase a commodity he couldn't get on his side.

Hernton says (p90) that
There are countless Negro women who are involved with white men in the South...They 'slip round' when the circumstances are propitious. Most of these affairs are not lasting relationships.

And (p96) he's talking to a white Southerner about his father's maid - who, the guy says,
ruled the house
And that
...not once did I hear my father call her a nigger or treat her with father was a bigot if ever there was one - he lynched a Negro once.

Hernton suggests that
'...the most likely explanation - and I can cite ten scholars who'll bear me out - is that your father was intimate with that maid. Was he, as far as you know?'

'Why, yes,' he said, matter of factly. And then, as if he could not stop his tongue, 'and when I grew up, I had her too.'

That Thurmond did likewise with Carrie Butler - and kept shtum about it afterwards - is not an aberration but - in the Jim Crow South - the most natural thing in the world!

Benjamin then gets worked up about the
One big question [which] is why Ms. Williams never went public while he was alive.
He is evidently shocked - and most assuredly not in the Captain Reynaud sense! - by what she says:
She now has given us an answer, and it's not pretty: "Williams said her earlier statements had been a cover, part of an agreement she made with the senator to keep quiet in return for decades of financial support."

So he should pay her and have her blab all over the state [2]!

And Benjamin's last word:
But it's a pretty despicable business when the hush money is paid to your daughter to further a career built on discriminating against her and others like her.

The really despicable business, of course, was the fact that generations of Northern - mostly Democratic - politicians gladly took power in Congress and the White House on the strength of the votes of the lynchers of Duck Hill, MS and the users of Negro women all over the South.

Did the saints of the Democracy - Wilson and Roosevelt - cavil at taking advantage of the one-party state in South Carolina to count on its Electoral College votes and focus their electoral efforts elsewhere? I should coco!

(Wilson, of course, was a Carolinian himself, though whether he sampled brown sugar himself I have no idea.)

Had these fine gentlemen really wished not to sully themselves with the support of such scum as the Duck Hill mob, they could have placed radical integration proposals in their platforms. Better still, they could have invited those moral lepers to secede!

Meanwhile, in the real world, the dirty business of politics was and is carried on by the brand of shyster and chiseller best able to compartmentalise and remain sanguine in the face of human imperfections, particularly his own! Only an overgrown schoolboy like Jefferson Smith supposes things have ever been any different, surely?

  1. Strictly speaking, of course, one can't be precise; is there any information on Carrie Butler's parentage, I wonder? It is far from out of the question that one or more fine Southern gentlemen may have made a contribution.

  2. My recollection is that she was also concerned not to make her own illegitimacy known: I can't check this because the WaPo site is currently down!

[WaPo was fine - a little local difficulty at this end, I discover.]

The quote on motives is, however, there in the WaPo piece:
"I did not want anybody to know I had an illegitimate father," said Williams...

And Calvin Hernton died in 2001.

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