Originally created 10/04/04

Memos may have sparked Thurmond makeover



COLUMBIA, S.C. - U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond was warned by an advisers as early as 1970 that racist rhetoric would no longer win elections in South Carolina.

Just weeks after receipt of those memos - part of a collection of some 8 million records belonging to the late senator - Thurmond began reworking his image from a staunch segregationist to a racial moderate.

Reporters from The (Columbia) State newspaper found the memos while researching the collection of Thurmond papers at Clemson University.

The nation's longest-serving senator died last year at age 100, just months after his Senate career ended.

One memo was written by the late Dolly Hamby, who had given Thurmond advice since 1954.

"Strom, South Carolina is much more moderate than many think," she wrote. "An appeal to race is no longer a vote-getter."

Hamby's four-page memo was written Nov. 6, 1970, two days after Thurmond's protege, Republican Albert Watson, lost his campaign for governor to Democrat John West, who drew votes from blacks and moderate whites.

"The 'racist' charge REALLY hurt!" Hamby wrote.

Thurmond had endorsed Watson and loaned advisers to the campaign.

A second confidential memo, written Nov. 30, 1970, told Thurmond, "we should not be reluctant to express our concern for oppressed minority groups."

"It is not fair for us to be portrayed as lacking in such concern," said the memo from aide Wayne Robbins. "We should talk more... about our deep concern for poor people. It is needless to concede this position to the liberals."

Thurmond needed to soften his image, Robbins wrote. "Now I do not advocate that we change our basic positions one inch, but we do need to change our way of talking about them."

Despite a campaign boast that he wouldn't "bend my philosophy just to get elected," Thurmond hired his first high-level black staffer just months after Watson's loss. He had previously said blacks and whites shouldn't work together. Other statements on race also were toned down.

Thurmond's advisers "recognize there's a shifting group of white voters who are no longer comfortable with overtly racist rhetoric," said Dan Carter, a historian at the University of South Carolina.

Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University said he found it interesting the memos was kept. "Sometimes sensitive advice like that winds up shredded," Black said.

Thurmond never publicly discussed his change on the issue of race, but Carter said the first memo marked a change in thinking, and the second mapped out a way to make that change.

"This is the beginning of the whole transformation in the rhetoric of compassion, in which conservatives reframe issues in such a way in that liberals are the ones that are oppressing people," he said.

One political operative from that era still around is Hastings Wyman, 65, campaign manager for Watson's losing gubernatorial bid.

"1970 was a very touchy year," Wyman said. "Lots of folks were still fighting integration. It wasn't clear that the battle was over."

Wyman, who also worked for Thurmond, said among the campaign's tactics were anonymous leaflets delivered to rural white voters warning that if Watson lost, blacks would gain major influence in state government.

"I was reflecting much of the segregationist sentiment of the time and believed that was a good way to win votes," Wyman said.

Now a Washington-based political analyst, Wyman has said he is sorry for his role in making race an issue in the 1970 campaign.