Originally created 09/23/96

Thurmond was once third-party candidate



As U.S. Sen. J. Strom Thurmond prepares for an election that could extend his public service into the next century, many people may have forgotten about his bid for the presidency in the first half of the century.

But 48 years ago today, Mr. Thurmond delivered a fiery speech before 4,000 cheering Augustans at the Municipal Auditorium that helped him capture the votes of the area.

Almost a half-century later, people such as Francis Tracy of Harlem, remember the election that pitted Mr. Thurmond against incumbent Democrat Harry Truman and Republican challenger Thomas Dewey.

"I agreed with a lot of things Thurmond stood for," Mr. Tracy said. "I just didn't think he stood a chance as a third party person - which he proved himself."

Instead, Mr. Tracey threw his support to Mr. Dewey. "Everybody thought (Dewey) was going to win," he said. "I think he lost the election himself. He just gave the impression of not being friendly or down-to-earth."

Mr. Thurmond, now 93 and the oldest senator ever to serve in Washington, was governor of South Carolina and a Democrat in 1948.

But when President Truman announced plans for a broad range of civil rights programs, many southern Democrats balked at the party.

At a convention of disgruntled "states' rights Democrats," Mr. Thurmond was chosen to run for president with Gov. Fielding Wright of Mississippi as vice president.

"As long as the so-called civil rights program is part of the platform the people of the South are not going to support the national Democratic nominees," Mr. Thurmond told the Augusta crowd. "To do so would be to invite political suicide. We know our rights as a sovereign state and we are going to maintain them."

Band music and group signing were part of the rally, and the speech was broadcast nationwide by radio, pre-empting such popular shows as the Kraft Music Hall.

Even though 48 years have passed, many people are still reluctant to talk about the divisive 1948 election.

Mr. Thurmond's challenge meant that many Democrats had to choose between loyalty to the Democratic Party and loyalty to the South.

That was the case for Roscoe Coleman of Thompson, who was running for the General Assembly as a Democrat in 1948.

"I agreed to support the Democratic ticket if I was elected as a Democratic nominee to the General Assembly," he said. "That included voting for the Democratic ticket in the General Assembly."

So he voted for Mr. Truman even though he sympathized with Mr. Thurmond's campaign.

Like many other southern conservatives, Mr. Coleman eventually switched to the Republican Party.

Some voters, such as Richard Dyson of Augusta, weren't impressed with Mr. Thurmond's bid.

"I looked at him and still do as an opportunist," he said. "Truman did a good job. I think he was one of the best we ever had."

He said the civil rights issue is still a factor in contemporary politics. "There's still a problem there," he said. "A lot of so-called Republicans are only in the party because of the civil rights issue."

Nationwide, 1.1 million voters cast their ballots for Mr. Thurmond. He won 39 electoral votes in capturing four states during the 1948 campaign: South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.

That's a record even Ross Perot can't boast. Mr. Perot's independent candidacy shook up the 1992 presidential race by winning 19 percent of the popular vote. But he failed to win a single state.

And while Mr. Thurmond failed to win Georgia, he took Richmond County in a landslide, beating Mr. Truman and Mr. Dewey's combined vote by more than 2-to-1.

Mr. Thurmond earned 8,814 votes in Richmond County. Harry Truman was a distant second with 2,451 votes and Mr. Dewey was third with 528 votes.

The solid support for the Dixiecrats foreshadowed the rise of the Republican party in the South, said Dr. Ralph Walker, professor of politics at Augusta State University.

"The Dixiecrats were the first crack in the wall of the solid Democratic dominance," he said. "That was the beginning of the end of the one-party system in the South."

Mr. Thurmond switched to the Republican Party in 1964. He is currently seeking re-election against Democratic challenger Elliott Close.