Strom warning

Believe it or not, there is a movement afoot in Congress to name the planned visitor center in Washington, D.C., after the late Sen. Strom Thurmond. Yes, I do mean that Strom Thurmond, and no, I’m not kidding.

I first read about it a few days ago in the Amsterdam News, an African-American newspaper based in New York. Since I hadn’t heard a thing about the issue anywhere else, I decided to check it out for myself. I was curious why the story hadn’t sparked an ounce of media interest elsewhere that I could find. Granted, this is not an issue that threatens national security, but it is for damned sure an issue that is troubling enough to deserve a little more attention.

Sure enough, on July 8, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., introduced a bill in the House (H.R. 2661) that would name the new Capitol Visitor Center after Thurmond. The bill, which is brief, states: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, Section 1. J. Strom Thurmond Capitol Visitor Center. The Capitol Visitor Center shall be known and designated as the ‘J. Strom Thurmond Capitol Visitor Center’, and any reference to the Center in any law, rule, or regulation shall be deemed to be a reference to the J. Strom Thurmond Capitol Visitor Center.”

The five co-sponsors of the bill are Reps. Henry E. Brown Jr., Jim DeMint, and Joe Wilson, all from South Carolina, and Reps. Howard Coble and Walter B. Jones Jr., both from North Carolina. There is no bill summary, but according to the Amsterdam News, Sen. Lindsey Graham, another South Carolina Republican, is expected to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

You may have noticed that the steam behind this misguided project is being generated in the Carolinas, which should tell you something. Still, rather than wait to see whether this thing is allowed to quietly snowball and gather wider support, it’s better to make some noise early on before what could become an extremely offensive and embarrassing situation results.

Isn’t it strange that all this effort is being expended for a man whose most memorable accomplishment was being responsible for the longest filibuster in history, which lasted 24 hours and 18 minutes, as he did everything in his power to stop passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act?

Back in 1948, when Thurmond was running for president on the “Dixiecrat” platform of states’ rights — rights that were designed primarily to allow Southern states the freedom to discriminate, segregate, and racially abuse black people as they saw fit — Thurmond is reported to have said, “There’s not enough troops in the U.S. Army to force Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Apparently, however, in the grand tradition of the old South, Strom didn’t mind letting at least one of them into his bed. According to a biography of Thurmond titled Ol’ Strom, by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson, Thurmond impregnated a black woman who gave birth to a daughter named Essie Mae Williams, now a widowed former schoolteacher living in Los Angeles. As the story goes, Thurmond had a lengthy relationship with a black servant named Essie “Tunch” Butler, who gave birth to Strom’s illegitimate daughter in 1925.

The J. Strom Thurmond Capitol Visitor Center? Might I suggest the Essie Mae Williams Visitor Center? That name better represents what really needs to be remembered in America.

The two things Thurmond was known for were his committed opposition to civil rights during his earlier years and the record-setting length of his service in the Senate. That’s pretty much it. During 47 years of public service, Thurmond made his mark by being a racist who later realized the errors of his segregationist past, and then managed to reach 100 years of age before retiring.

So, just to be clear, Thurmond’s great contribution to America is that he was an elderly ex-racist who grew up in the South but eventually outgrew his environment enough to realize he’d made a mistake, right? Please forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but I just want to make sure I understand this. Maybe if I can find a way to understand why these “achievements” are so grand, I’ll be able to better understand the reasons behind this movement to name the Capitol visitor center after someone like Thurmond.

And I don’t suppose the push to name the visitor center after Thurmond would be quite so big a deal if it weren’t for an additional insult added to injury; construction costs for the center are projected to reach as high as $400 million, according to the NAACP, which is strongly opposed to naming the center — or anything else of value — after Thurmond. Can’t imagine why.

What exactly is the motive behind such a high-profile project commemorating such a flawed, controversial, mediocre public servant? I can tolerate flawed and controversial, since those two words describe just about every great man or woman who ever made a mark on history. But mediocre? You just don’t build monuments to mediocre people, especially not mediocre ex-racists.

Thurmond claimed in later years that he had realized the error of his ways and was no longer a staunch segregationist, but such a delayed change of heart — which, interestingly enough, occurred not long after black folks earned the right to vote — is no justification to elevate a mediocre individual to the level of monument worthiness. Hey, if this much money is needed to keep the memory alive of someone whose contributions were so minor — Thurmond’s legislative record is proof that he is responsible for little if any memorable lawmaking — then how much must we spend to honor someone who really deserves it?

Strom is dead and buried. I say leave him that way.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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