Shortly after taking over as executive editor last fall, I received a signed note of congratulations from Congressman Joe Wilson.
I chuckled because, after a big promotion at this newspaper early in my career, I received a similar signed note from Strom Thurmond. That was roughly 30 years ago, and I still have that faded newspaper clipping, and the venerable U.S. senator’s signature, somewhere in my files.
The recent movements across the country to tear down, rename or do away with certain monuments and buildings has troubled me. It was impossible for most of us to know or have a real connection with any of the founding fathers, Confederate generals or others who have been under attack of late. Most of them have been dead for more than a century.
But Strom Thurmond? He was someone a lot of us knew. He was someone you could see around Aiken or Edgefield. He wasn’t some historical figure that you could only read about. He lived to be 100.
While serving as the South Carolina bureau chief for another newspaper in the late 1990s, my editors got wind that Thurmond was slowing down. He was in his late 90s by then, and it was understandable that he might need some help getting around.
So I was assigned to do a story. After consulting with his press secretary, it wasn’t long before my office phone rang. It was Thurmond, who launched into a lengthy monologue about issues of the day. I don’t recall getting to ask too many questions, but I was impressed with his performance.
Now there are petitions calling for his name to be removed from the high school in Edgefield County and the wellness center in the heart of USC’s campus in Columbia. The high school was named for him because it is in his home county. The wellness center honor is presumably a nod to his legendary fitness and stamina.
Yes, Thurmond held views on race and integration that don’t sit well. Yes, he fathered a child out of wedlock with a Black maid who worked for his family.
The headline on his obituary online in The New York Times is “Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100.” The obituary goes on to summarize, in great detail, Thurmond’s opposition to integration and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.
But it also points out that his views changed in the 1970s and he was among the first senators from the South to hire a Black aide.
“From then on, black South Carolinians, like all other residents, benefited from his skills as a pork-barrel politician who took care of the home folks,” the obituary said.
Last week, during a visit to Aiken, Lindsey Graham talked about the man he replaced in the U.S. Senate. He pointed out Thurmond’s legendary record of helping his constituents, i.e. the folks back home.
“I guess what I’m saying is he changed,” Graham said.
That is the heart of the nationwide debate on taking down monuments or renaming buildings and streets. Where do we draw the line?
In Thurmond's case, it might be a moot point. Renaming the high school goes against a bill that was signed into law in the 1980s. And so far, USC has not acted on the petition to change the name of the wellness center.
Edgefield Republican Shane Massey, who is the S.C. Senate Majority Leader, told us in the article on the petition to rename Strom Thurmond High that many people in this region think of Thurmond "affectionately."
That’s what I choose to do. Yes, I think Thurmond’s views and actions during the first part of his political career were wrong. But I also know that he wielded his influence and did a lot of good for the people of South Carolina, regardless of race.
In our rush to rename and tear down things, we should keep the whole picture in mind.
Thanks for reading.
John Boyette is executive editor of the Aiken Standard. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-644-2364.