State Sen. Paul Thurmond on Tuesday became one of the first lawmakers to officially call for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds, denouncing a past that his father, segregationist Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, was identified with most of his life.
In a speech timed to shape the debate over calls to take down the flag, Paul Thurmond took to the podium and spoke for more than six minutes, calling the flag an emblem from a war that is long over and one that has been tied to racism.
“Now we have these hate groups and the symbols they use to remind African-Americans that things haven’t changed and that they are still viewed as less than equal human beings,” Thurmond said. “Well, let me tell you things have changed. Overwhelmingly, people are not being raised to hate or to believe they are superior to others based on the color of their skin.”
Thurmond, 39, a Republican who represents parts of Charleston County, added he was “proud to be on the right side of history regarding the removal of this symbol of racism and bigotry from the Statehouse.”
Thurmond’s speech came as he has long tried to protect his father’s legacy, pointing to the positives from Strom Thurmond’s long career as South Carolina’s governor and the nearly five decades he served as a U.S. senator.
But Strom Thurmond is still remembered by many as the Jim Crow Southerner who fought civil rights legislation even into the 1960s and advocated segregation, making it a central part of his Dixiecrat campaign for president in 1948. He later modified his views in the 1970s and 1980s. Thurmond died at the age of 100 in 2003.
Paul Thurmond did not mention his father during his address, but did speak of his Confederate ancestors, including those who surrendered at Appomattox 150 years ago last April. He said he could not fathom the reasons for the war.
“For the life of me, I will never understand how anyone could fight a civil war based in part on the desire to continue the practice of slavery,” Thurmond said.
“Think about it for just a second. Our ancestors were literally fighting to continue to keep human beings as slaves, and continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will. I am not proud of that heritage.”
Thurmond’s address came as lawmakers in the House and Senate voted to take up legislation that would remove the flag from the Confederate monument on the Statehouse grounds. The move came a day after Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to come down in the wake of the June 17 mass shooting of nine parishioners at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. All nine victims were black. Charged with murder is 21-year-old Dylann Roof of Eastover, who is white.
Jack Bass, a longtime biographer of the elder Thurmond, said the symbolism of the younger Thurmond calling for the removal of the flag probably would have been well-received by his father.
“I think Strom would have been very proud of his son,” Bass said. He added that Thurmond may have even gotten behind the flag removal effort as recently as 20 years ago, pointing to his move to repent his past in his later career. In the 1980s, Thurmond supported extending the Voting Rights Act.
“I think Strom would have thought it should have come down,” Bass said.
Paul Thurmond also paid homage to fallen state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, a Charleston Democrat who was pastor at Emanuel AME Church and one of the victims.
“I needed time to mourn the loss of my friend and my fellow Charlestonians,” he said.
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551