GREENVILLE, N.C. -- His daughter spoke quietly as she shared her secret, yet her words conveyed the weight of the burden she was releasing.
"My father's name was James Strom Thurmond," she said. "I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last, I feel completely free."
That statement, made in the ballroom of a South Carolina hotel, confirmed with remarkable dignity what had been whispered for decades about a man who was an icon of Southern racism.
Thurmond, an arch-segregationist, built his legendary political career priming the pump of prejudice. Yet as a young man he fathered a mixed-race child with a 16-year-old maid who worked in his father's house. He kept up with his daughter and throughout his lifetime sent her money, helped her with college, even received her at the governor's mansion, although through the back door.
Washington-Williams, now 78 and a former teacher from Los Angeles, held her secret until after Thurmond's death. She said did not want to harm her father.
"I was sensitive about his well-being, his career and his family," she said.
Yet by doing so, she gave him a pass.
Thurmond's vehemence against desegregation, in his later years, was tempered by age and by times that had changed. Yet as governor of South Carolina, and through much of his 48 years in the U.S. Senate, he was a polarizing figure. He manipulated fear, ignorance and hate to secure power and protect an immoral policy that ensured one race's superiority over another.
He deserves credit for his support of black colleges, and for the national holiday supporting Dr. Martin Luther King. But the fact is, for much of his life, Thurmond carried the banner of racial segregation. And while he spoke one way in public, he acted another in private.
Those actions are not harmless.
There is another thing, too, which should not be overlooked. The maid who was the mother of his firstborn had barely reached the threshold of womanhood. In 1925, a teen-age African-American domestic had few options, and Thurmond, the son of her employer, exerted a measure of economic control over her.
The fact of young men preying on vulnerable young women is an old story, and not confined to the South. But that makes the circumstances no more moral.
One thing is certain. The character of the creamy-skinned daughter he begat settles once and for all the question of nurture or nature.
Essie Mae Washington-Williams is not her father's daughter. The uncommon dignity with which she laid out the hypocrisy of Thurmond's life stands out in sharp relief.
She has told us who she is, and with that secret, unveiled who we all are in the South, where black and white are bound by blood more often than anyone realizes. Her candid admission clears a path to reconciliation in even the most tattered corners of a race-tortured region.
Wherever Strom Thurmond is right now, in whatever part of the firmament he has landed, he is accounting for what he has done.
There is some measure of satisfaction in that image. For here, on this Earth which he left six months ago and where he spent a lifetime practicing duplicity and exploitation, he has been granted a pass.
© Copyright 2003 Star Tribune