What would you say about a man who once ran for president on a platform promising to end “social intermingling of the races”?
Or who wrote a manifesto declaring a Supreme Court school integration decision didn’t have to be obeyed? Or who served in office for nearly 30 years before voting for a civil rights bill?
And who has yet to say “I’m sorry” for years and years of forceful opposition to granting equality to all Americans?
His unabashed colleagues give him nothing but praise.
“He’s a man of iron with a heart of gold,” gushed Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.).
“He is not only a great man, he’s done great things in his life,” lauded Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
“He’s not just a witness to the entire 20th century, he was a full participant,” enthused Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).
The “great things” from the “heart of gold” don’t include any landmark legislation authored by retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Nor did it include ensuring all Americans were “full participants.” Instead, Thurmond’s sole legacy is durability and opposition to civil rights.
Today, his 100th birthday, Thurmond became the oldest U.S. senator. He is also the longest serving senator. His last vote was cast in favor of confirming a long-time aide opposed by civil rights groups to a federal appeals court judgeship.
In the encomiums heaped upon him as he was guided into the Senate for the last time, his colleagues recalled how he’d been the first Southern senator to hire a Black aide.
For them, this minor gesture to the 25 percent of his constituents who are Black apparently erased years and years of vitriol heaped upon civil rights forces, resistance to civil rights laws and hostility toward simple justice. Their eager embrace is sad acknowledgement of how easily the past is forgotten and forgiven – even when intolerance persists to the present day.
That a senator serving today holds the record for the longest filibuster in history – 24 hours and 18 minutes against a civil rights bill – is a measure of how recently civil rights protections have been extended to all.
As Thurmond was piloted away from the Senate chamber for the last time, it had been only 38 years since civil rights protections were guaranteed to all, only 37 years since all Americans were guaranteed the right to vote, only 37 years since the protections of the Constitution were extended to all.
If Thurmond had had his way, even those short years would not have existed. The 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Fair Housing Act all became law over his objections.
When Thurmond was born, Black South Carolinians could not vote, go to school with whites or work at jobs reserved for whites. Thurmond has spent his life trying to maintain the status quo of 100 years ago.
He is a relic of America’s shameful past, who had long overstayed his welcome. And shame to his colleagues who confuse simple longevity with an illustrious legacy.
Julian Bond, a former member of the Georgia Senate, has been board chairman of the NAACP since 1998. He is a distinguished professor in residence at American University and a professor of history at the University of Virginia. This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It is reprinted here by permission of the author.