Strom Thurmond secretly visited his daughter throughout her college years. Soon after Thurmond lost his bid for the presidency in 1948 and Essie Mae's mother died, Essie Mae confronted him on some of his pervasive beliefs about blacks. Her boldness was fueled by anger over the miserable conditions of her mother's death. Perhaps she was also tired of the cloak of secrecy which permeated their visits.
"I want black people to have jobs."
"So do I, Essie Mae. That's why I love this school [South Carolina State University], which gets Negroes qualified. I'm working on a lot of educational reforms... But it takes time."
"The backs of the buses, the railway coaches, the colored balconies at the movie shows... It's not fair."
"It's the South, Essie Mae," the governor spoke with finality. "It's the culture here. It's the custom. It's the way we live." I could tell the "we" didn't include me. "You don't go to England and tell them to get rid of the queen and the royalty. That's not fair, either, but it's the custom. They got rid of the royalty in Russia, and what do you have? Communism! A police state. It's no different from Hitler."
And neither are you, I wanted to say. What I did say was, "Hitler said the Jews were inferior. You said the Negroes (I often used his terms) are inferior."
"That is completely untrue, Essie Mae. A terrible falsehood! Where did I say that?
"Not inferior. Different! Different! Imagine! To compare me to Hitler. Not that I haven't heard it in that campaign. I heard everything. But to hear it from you. Essie Mae... You can't change the South."
"You don't want to, sir."
"Oh yes I do. I'm changing it right now, by having you here, getting a fine education to get you a fine career. There's nothing in this country you won't be able to do, Essie Mae. Nothing at all. Nothing your husband won't be able to do."
"We can't get served at the counter at Woolworth's."
"Why would you want to? The food's no good. I bet these restaurants right here are much better. They serve good fresh food. I know they do. You can't get a vegetable at Woolworth's. I've never seen spinach, green beans at the five and dime. What do you want, a hot dog that will kill you?"
"I guess I want the choice." (p. 146-7)
At the end of that visit Thurmond reached out to hug his daughter, but she didn't recieve it. But when she was counting the money he gave her after he left she concluded,
"For all his bluster, for all his racist campaign posturing, I somehow couldn't dislike him the way I wanted to...Even though on the surface he had it all, high office, a perfect wife, health and wealth and power, I--and only I--new how deeply conflicted he had to be. I knew he loved my mother. I believed he loved me, after his fashion. It was an unspeakable love, forbidden by the 'culture and custom' of the South, as he called it. The money was speaking it for him. It wasn't hush money; it wasn't a bribe. It was the governor's own outpouring of love and shame and frustration. He had no other way to demonstrate his affection." (p. 149)
Next week I'll share more of Essie Mae's observations about segregation.
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