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Strom Thurmond Daughter's Silence Slowed America's Racial Reckoning
Published on Tuesday, December 23, 2003 by the Miami Herald
Strom Thurmond Daughter's Silence Slowed America's Racial Reckoning
by Robert Steinback

Essie Mae Washington-Williams, 78, has earned the favorable verdict of the court of public opinion for the gentle way in which she revealed the secret of her parentage -- Strom Thurmond, the late senator and one-time segregationist presidential candidate, and a 16-year-old black maid named Carrie Butler.

My personal jury, however, is hung. I think Washington-Williams should be damned angry.

Williams' grace -- waiting until her father was dead, then not expressing bitterness or seeking a share of his estate -- reflects honorably on her. But I'm not a big fan of nobility in victimhood -- legitimate victims have every right to speak out against that which burdens them.

How difficult it must have been for Washington-Williams to remain silent, knowing that emerging from the shadows at any moment during her famous father's life could have hobbled him as an icon of intolerance. Who knows how the troubled evolution of race relations in Americn might have been altered?

Her lack of anger embodies both American society's odd comfort with glaring hypocrisy, and its insidious expectation that victims, to be favorably regarded, should remain passive.

Washington-Williams' lifelong silence enabled Thurmond to abuse the notion of racial justice for decades. She may not be angry today, but I am -- while Thurmond was promoting attitudes that were choking my Southern-born-and-bred black parents and grandparents, a truth existed that might have crippled his agenda had it been brought to light.

I would err, though, to assume that exposure inevitably would have brought Thurmond down. After all, it appears knowledge of Thurmond's foray into interracial sex was a rather open secret that wafted harmlessly for years through segments of South Carolina society. Key people, if not the public at large, knew.

Exercising `right'

Among true American-style racists, a white man fathering a mixed-race child was not hypocrisy but an exercise of racial privilege, akin to a man's ''right'' to beat his dog. There was undoubtedly some perverse pride in a white man of the day using a helpless black girl of 16 to relieve his hormonal urgings -- it could be construed as the ultimate manifestation of white power and domination.

Thurmond's racist peers during those early years probably regarded him as a sensitive humanitarian for supporting his illegitimate child; it was well above and beyond the call of duty for a good white Southerner, and more than was necessary for Thurmond to remain a respected leader within proper white society.

Consider, by contrast, what would have triggered a true scandal: Thurmond actually loving Carrie Butler, or wanting to marry her and live as little Essie Mae's dad, not just her benefactor. That display of character would have brought Thurmond down in a heartbeat. American racism was based on domination, not purity: A man could rape below his class, as long as he married his ``own kind.''

I'm angry that the repugnant attitudes Thurmond represented, which should have been buried with the Pharaohs, reached forward into my lifetime. America has made great progress in racial justice during the last half-century. Yet Washington-Williams' silence delayed reckoning of America's unsavory racial legacy.

Speaking out earlier surely would have brought untold hostility and distress upon Washington-Williams and her family. How many Thurmond defenders would have launched attacks on her character had she brought forth her story while Thurmond lived?

Attacks target victims

Just a few years ago, remember, many Americans reacted with outrage when certain self-righteous congressional critics of Bill Clinton's marital infidelities were found to have had ''youthful indiscretions'' hidden in their own pasts -- outrage not so much against the hypocrites, but those who exposed them. The nerve of them, revealing the truth!

This is why Washington-Williams spoke of ''a great weight finally being lifted.'' The burden she silently carried for so long was not only that of a family, but of a nation, unwilling to acknowledge and face the truth.

Copyright 1996-2003 Miami Herald


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