USA Today has weighed in with a front-page story on the new book, Dear Senator, by Essie Mae Williams, daughter of the late Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Mrs. Williams had refrained from revealing her identity until after the senator’s passing, but his children have readily acknowledged that her claim is factual. The newspaper report has been followed by an MSNBC interview, so we may be justified in anticipating a blitz of publicity surrounding the revelations in the book.
It would be reasonable to assume that the flavor of the reportage will be redolent of the USA Today version. Their read on the story is that it was necessary for the daughter’s identity to be a secret because her mother was a black woman. This is taken to reflect on the racial attitudes of the American South, more radically in the 1920s when she was born, more subtly in later decades.
Far be it from me to disparage the inequities that prevailed in the South before the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. My father hitchhiked cross-country in the late 1940s along with a fellow Yeshiva student and they accepted a ride from a black man in one of the Carolinas. Shortly thereafter, they were pulled over by a State trooper who wanted to know what they were doing in the car. It is my father’s belief to this day that he saved the driver from a beating by insisting that they were together. The officer kept suggesting that the teenagers get back on the road while the driver accompanied him to the police station to clear up some matters. My father refused to be separated from the man and eventually the trooper backed down.
However, I don’t think that the case has been made that Mrs. Williams received one iota of lesser treatment by virtue of her race. If her mother had been white, she would not have been given any greater advantage. If anything, it seems to me that Strom treated her considerably better than the average Southerner of that day would have treated a daughter whose fleece was white as snow.
Consider: he was 22 when the daughter was born, while her mother was 15. He did not get married until twenty-five years later, so there was no family to adopt her into. Still, he always slipped her mother money, amounts that were quite significant for the time. After the mother died, he gave money directly to the daughter. He helped her gain admission to a good college and visited her while she was a student.
He kept up with her after she got married and had children, his grandchildren. Later, when her husband died fairly young, he assisted her with sizable sums. He also never told her not to reveal that he was her father; that was a decision that she made of her own volition, although it is a fair presumption that it reflected his preference as well.
Now let’s be honest. Even if the mother and child were white, how many men would have undertaken this level of responsibility and acknowledgment back in 1925? It was not a matter of pride to have fathered a child out of wedlock; this was a behavior that was strongly discouraged by the culture for reasons that owe as much to a need for social stability as they do to moral codes founded in religiosity. This was true virtually anywhere in the country at that time and more so in the South.
The actor Jack Nicholson thought that he was an orphan who was being raised by a sister sixteen years older than himself. On the night that he received an Oscar for his role in Chinatown, she revealed that she was actually his mother. A similar thing happened with a friend of mine who grew up to be a practicing rabbi and Jewish communal leader. In both of those cases, as in many more like them, the identity of the actual father seemed to have melted into oblivion. This was the way that society ordered itself until quite recently, and the children bought some dignity at the expense of a fatherly presence in their lives.
The story of Essie Williams could be written with no slightest variation if matters of race were not mentioned at all. She grew up as a love child, but one more fortunate than most such offspring; her father looked after her with a caring eye and an open wallet. She was a college graduate in the 1940s, which placed her a hefty cut above the average middle-class American kid. Her story leads us to respect her a great deal and to label her Dad a man of no small integrity. It should be painted not with harsh racial tar but with a gentle human feather.
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