Strom Thurmond at 100

Colorful South Carolinian Set Record as Oldest Living U.S. Senator

Listen: Hear part of Strom Thurmond's landmark 1948 speech defending segregation, to an audience of fellow "Dixiecrats."

button marking Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday

hide captionA commemorative button marking Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday.

Button courtesy of John Pietrowski

The oldest and longest-serving senator ever turns 100 years old today. South Carolina Republican Strom Thurmond is the first sitting senator ever to become a centenarian; and he does so one month before the end of his eighth and final term in the Senate. But Thurmond probably will be remembered for more than his longevity, as NPR's David Welna reports.

Thurmond first gained national prominence in 1948. That's when white southern Democrats left their party's national convention over the civil rights plank that northern Democrats put in the platform. At a breakaway convention held a week later in Alabama, under the banner of the States' Rights Democratic Party, the rebellious "Dixiecrats" chose Thurmond, then South Carolina's governor, as their presidential nominee. Thurmond told them there were not enough troops in the Army to force white southerners to end segregation and allow what he called "the Negro race" into theaters, swimming pools, homes and churches. In the 1948 presidential election, Thurmond won more than a million votes and carried four southern states.

In 1954, the year the Supreme Court banned segregated schools, Thurmond was elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate. There, Welna says, Thurmond "kept up the losing battle to preserve segregation, setting a Senate record in 1957 by filibustering a civil rights bill with a floor speech that lasted more than 24 hours."

When Democratic President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Welna says Thurmond "made a move that began a movement and transformed the American political landscape: He switched to the Republican Party." Thurmond's switch inspired many other Dixiecrats to follow suit, says University of South Carolina historian Dan Carter: "Thurmond wasn't always right, but he was a good politician and I think he sensed ahead of everyone else that the South was going Republican."

Thurmond never apologized for his segregationist past. But he did make some amends — and win some black votes — by becoming the first former Dixiecrat on Capitol Hill to hire an African-American staffer.

In recent years, Thurmond's raspy voice was seldom heard from the Senate floor. Last year, he collapsed in the Senate, and he has spent his nights at Walter Reed Army Medical Center ever since. Two weeks ago, as the Senate's final session of the 107th Congress ground to a close, aides had to help Thurmond out of a wheelchair to sit at the desk of the presiding officer. Thurmond — nearly half as old as the Senate itself — looked out over a chamber where he had cast more than 16,000 votes. As the last act of a 48-year career, he read a brief message printed out in large letters, then basked in the applause of his fellow senators. As the clapping died down, he raised an arm, and summed up the historic moment: "That's all."

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