This week, I received an email from my alma mater, asking me to attend a dinner honoring the 50th anniversary of the university's integration. In 1963, Clemson opened its doors to Harvey Gantt, an extraordinary man who has made a name for himself in North Carolina politics. Before he was running for Senate against racist Jesse Helms in that state, Gantt was making his name at Clemson. He earned a degree in architecture, graduating from that difficult program with honors. He went on to MIT, where he earned his Master's in city planning.
But on this great occasion, I am left to wonder just what my school is doing to honor the legacy of inclusion begun by Harvey Gantt. When he bravely walked into his first class, he drug Clemson into the modern era. One significant campus landmark remains, though, and it honors the legacy of a nefarious man who should not be celebrated in any way on a campus that seeks to promote its diversity.
Just behind the library, where students make good on the education that Harvey Gantt helped make a reality, there sits the Strom Thurmond Institute. An imposing structure, the institute houses the Senator's papers and memorabilia from his political career. More than just a nod to the past, this institute serves as a living memorial to a man who stood for everything that was wrong with 20th century America. And I think it's time we ask the question - why does Clemson University continue to honor the legacy of a vile racist?
During his 1948 presidential campaign, Strom Thurmond ran through the South on the following platform:
"I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there’s not enough
troops in the army to force the southern people to break
down segregation and accept the Negro [pronounced Nigra]
into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes,
and into our churches."
He fought school desegregation tooth and claw. In 1957, in an attempt to defeat civil-rights legislation, he embarked on the longest filibuster in Senate history: 24 hours 18 minutes. When Lyndon Johnson nominated Thurgood Marshall as the first black justice of the Supreme Court in 1967, Mr. Thurmond tormented him at the confirmation hearing by asking 60 arcane legal questions.Many Thurmond apologists claim that he had a late-life revival of the spirit, but that hardly seems a fair characterization. Knowing he had lost, it made little political sense for Thurmond to fight an abandoned battle. To Strom Thurmond, the phrase, "Times have changed" meant that the racists were outnumbered, not that he'd personality changed in any meaningful way. Ibbitson went on to describe the "evolution" of the Senator when he wrote:
But, by then, his cause was lost. And so, as more and more blacks began exercising their right to vote, Mr. Thurmond retired from the field of racial battle. Like a Nazi who changes into a suit, he began hiring blacks in his office, and supporting their causes. "Times have changed," he would explain. His new tone and, far more important, his impressive fundraising machine and his acumen at dispensing pork, helped to ensure his political survival. It didn't hurt that the good ol' boys of South Carolina knew that, in his heart, he was still one of them.Strom Thurmond's racism was so strong that he never truly loved the bi-racial daughter he father with his parents' 16-year old maid. To say nothing of a 22-year old man taking advantage of a girl six years his junior, Thurmond subjected his daughter to a lifetime of isolation. A USA Today report notes:
She says she saw her father at least 60 times over six decades. "Wherever he was, I saw him." Yet, she writes, despite the hugs and kisses, the phone calls, the Father's Day cards, the trip souvenirs and the graduation presents, they never shared a meal or said "I love you" to each other.Essie Washington-Williams is that daughter, and she wrote in her autobiography:
"As much as I wanted to 'belong' to him, I never felt like a daughter, only an accident."But that was Strom Thurmond - a man who spent his entire political life fighting against the rights of his own daughter simply because she was partially black. If he wanted to truly show a change of heart, he could have at least claimed his daughter in his later years. He never publicly took that step, and the family only recently recognized Washington-Williams's relation after she threatened to prove it with DNA testing.
Further evidence of Thurmond's racism seems unnecessary at this point - like sending 100 foot soldiers into Nagasaki. It's a well-established fact and it's mostly undisputed among people in the rational world. The question then becomes one that Clemson University should and must answer - why do you, while also claiming to value diversity and inclusion, honor the record of this racist with an important university department?
At the dedication ceremony for the Strom Thurmond Institute, the Senator had this to say, among other things:
"It is my hope that the Institute will encourage young people to strive, to achieve, to excel, and to dream.
It is my hope that this institute will be a catalyst for public service and better government. It is my hope that this Institute will be a beacon of light and a source of pride for generations to come."
The Center's programs will embody the philosophy and values of Senator Thurmond and will be characterized by his pursuit of excellence and undaunted spirit of civic purpose.
I have to ask of my university - what exactly was the philosophy of Strom Thurmond? What were the values that drove his life that you want the center's programs to "embody?" Short of conducting research on how to best roll back voting rights and how to enlarge prison populations through overzealous drug prosecution, I can't think of many modern policy initiatives that would embody the things that Strom Thurmond stood for.
The institute was established shortly after the Senator decided to donate his papers to the university, and, in reality, it does good work. Certain agricultural research and alternative energy research has taken place there, among other things. The institute also hosts a speaker series and puts on a number of events throughout the year. The establishment of a policy center - even one that acknowledges the history of Strom Thurmond - is not at issue here. The issue is Clemson University's willingness to celebrate the values and philosophy of a man who stood directly opposed to basic human rights for an entire sub-set of the population.
Is it any surprise that Clemson University is still fighting an uphill battle in the area of race relations? Just a few years ago, when I was a student, anumber of Clemson students made national news by "celebrating" Martin Luther King's birthday in black-face at a party they dubbed "Living the Dream." This strained race relations on campus, but to the credit of the black community there, the school saw no significant retaliation or fallout.
And just this fall, a significant portion of the Memorial Stadium crowd booed the mention of the office of president during a military oath in what I believe to be a racially-motivated display.
Clemson University has a minority enrollment of just more than 15%, with black students being the most populous minority. And the school pays lip service to the idea of racial inclusiveness. The integration of Clemson University was peaceful, and when compared to other Southern schools, it was done with integrity. The school wants you to know all about that, and you can do so by purchasing its book called Integration with Dignity. Even Gantt himself speaks highly of his experience at Clemson:
“What I found most hopeful in my years as a student was that a good many of us, 18 to 22 years old, had a positive belief that our state and indeed our nation would undergo some struggles, but better days were ahead for them and for me and for people who looked like me,” he said. “And a lot of us left Clemson with the belief that we could make a difference.”While Strom Thurmond was out fighting against the integration of places like Clemson, another of the state's senators - Ernest "Fritz" Hollings - tried his very best to pull South Carolina out of the muck of its own ugly racism. Speaking of integration and Gantt, he said:
...This General Assembly must make clear South Carolina’s choice, a government of laws rather than a government of men ... This should be done with dignity. It must be done with law and order.
Dear Old Clemson,
It's time to stop.