When Hyman Bookbinder, the American Jewish Committee’s longtime Washington representative, watched the Senate approve a national holiday in memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1985, one of the most significant moments was the “aye” vote by Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)
“It was a sign,” said Bookbinder, who watched the vote from a Senate visitors gallery with Coretta Scott King, the civil rights leader’s widow. “When he voted in support of civil rights goals, he reflected what was happening in this country.”
Thurmond, the longest-serving member in the history of the Senate, died June 26 in South Carolina, the state he had represented for 47 years. He was 100 years old, and had left the Senate in January.
Jewish leaders in Washington and South Carolina remember the longtime lawmaker as a bellwether for the civil rights movement, and as a friendly and gentle man who made time for members of the Jewish community even though he frequently disagreed with them on policy issues.
A vocal opponent of the civil rights movement, Thurmond, then a Democratic governor, ran for president in 1948 as a “Dixiecrat,” opposing Harry Truman’s civil rights platform for the Democratic Party.
He lost, but was elected to the Senate as a write-in candidate six years later. In his first years in Congress, he was a strict segregationist, filibustering civil rights laws, but his position changed over time. He eventually supported the appointment of black federal judges and employed several African-Americans on his staff.
Thurmond became a Republican in 1964. But no matter what party he affiliated with, he often disagreed with the Jewish community.
“The original Thurmond was a guy who was against civil rights, the war on poverty, the liberal agenda,” said Bookbinder, who began working in Washington in 1951. “The liberal agenda was distasteful to him and he became distasteful to us.”
Thurmond often opposed foreign aid, a pet issue for a Jewish community seeking to help Israel. He also had little personal affinity for the South Carolina Jewish community, which was predominantly Democratic.
However, that didn’t stop him from reaching out to the small Jewish community in his state.
“On a one-on-one level he would always respond to you,” said Samuel Tannenbaum, a Jewish leader in the state’s capital, Columbia. “That was the ultimate success for him.”
To garner Thurmond’s support, Tannenbaum said, issues had to be formulated in a way that coincided with his worldview. For example, Thurmond could be convinced to support Israel once the issue was placed in the context of combating the Soviet Union and the rise of Communism in the Middle East.
In his last years, Thurmond was known more for the longevity of his service than for his policy platform. He often had to be told how to vote by staffers, as his mental capacities evidently were failing.
After celebrating his 100th birthday, he chose not to run for re-election last year.
But that faded legislator wasn’t the man that many people remembered. Steven Terner, executive director of the Columbia Jewish Federation in South Carolina, recalled meeting Thurmond a decade ago, when the senator was still relatively vigorous.
Terner asked Thurmond whether he would be interested in meeting the Israeli consul general, who was visiting from Atlanta. Thurmond said he preferred to speak to Terner, since he could vote in the state.
“He could crack a joke with the best of them — and when he shook my hand, I needed to check to make sure my fingers were intact,” Terner said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.