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Commentary :: Civil & Human Rights

Only In the South

Like millions of Americans, and I think especially Southerners, I am mesmerized by Essie Mae Washington-Williams's accounts of her relationship with her father, Strom Thumond -- when she asked why he espoused such segregationist views he replied, "That's just the way it is."
Up & Coming Weekly, December 24, 2003

I have long lamented the blurring of our regional distinctions and the homogenization of our uniquely spoken American English. Fast food now includes not only barbeque, hamburgers and hot dogs but taco, fajitas, spring rolls, and fish and chips without regard to origin. All voices on radio and television have the same polished neutral accent. Even Texan Dan Rather has lost his twang. We eagerly eat all kinds of food, and New Englanders are no more or less thrifty than anyone else these days.

The South, I am happy to say, retains some of its unique quirkiness despite creeping globalization in so many aspects of our lives. I was amused several years ago by a small vignette in John Behrend's book about Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He recounts the story of a renowned hostess, a woman known throughout the city and much of Georgia for her perfect parties, always the best in food, drink, and decorations and the most fascinating guests. All Savannah looked forward to her occasions. Arriving guests were stunned one evening, however, when the hostess flung open her door to greet them wearing ... her bathrobe!

It seems, she explained, that time ran out as she was preparing, so she was unable to get dressed herself and her guests would simply have to excuse her. They did, of course, and the party was a thundering success. Everyone enjoyed her delightful conversation and hospitality, bathrobe and all.

This story had special resonance with my walking partner and me, Southerners born and bred, and both who would have to confess not to attending our own parties in bathrobes but to fleeing upstairs to get dressed just as the first guests came up the walk. Perhaps we will be eccentric enough to do the bathrobe thing in a few more years.

The revelation about former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, the longest serving senator in United States history, however, is beyond eccentric. It is dumfounding. A teenager of my acquaintance put it best when, upon hearing the news for the first time, took a moment of silence and then uttered a single word.

"Dang."

"Dang" is the almost universal reaction to the emerging reality that Thurmond, beloved as "Strom" by generations of South Carolinians and who died last summer at the remarkable age of 100, fathered a child when he was in his early 20s with a 16-year-old maid in his family's household. Their biracial daughter, born out of wedlock 78 years ago, has guarded their secret for at least six decades, throughout the most strident days of her father's segregationist history, even when he ran for President of the United States as a Dixiecrat on a segregationist platform.

Like millions of Americans, and I think especially Southerners, I am mesmerized by Essie Mae Washington-Williams's accounts of her relationship with her father. It was warm, she says, and she believes he cared deeply for her. She and her father met privately over the years in his various offices and elsewhere, and he provided her financial support, often delivered by his aides. She once asked Thumond why he espoused such segregationist views, to which he replied, "That's just the way it is."

The one aspect of her story which really knocked my socks off, though, is her account of the first time she ever saw her father when she was about 16-years old and shortly after her mother revealed her true heritage. This encounter must have taken place sometime in the early 1940s, a different time in American history to be sure, but one well within the memory of many living Americans.

What did Senator Thurmond say to you, the interviewer asked. He told his young, illegitimate, biracial daughter that she had the family cheekbones, just like his sisters.

The question on the lips of countless Americans is why Essie Mae Washington-Williams did not, in today's parlance, "out" Strom Thurmond for his incomprehensible and undeniable hypocrisy. As my Southern grandmother would have said, "Don't you just want to wring his neck?"

I do not know Ms. Washington-Williams, but I do know many women and men of her generation, and my take is that she and Strom Thurmond - father and daughter in whatever peculiar way that relationship came into being - did love each other, and neither wanted to cause the other distress. She had a life and a career in education, and he was a significant figure in the history of the United States of America.

They cared enough for each other not to rock each other's boat.

Ms. Washington-Williams says she is not looking for inclusion in the late Senator's estate, and the people who are his acknowledged descendants are reaching out to her. All parties say they want to get to know each privately, which seems to me to be absolutely the right course. I hope they do and wish I could be a fly on the wall.

I challenge 2004 to bring a more riveting human drama than this.
Happy New Year to all.
 
 


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