Historical Gestures: The Evolution of a President
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Written by Chris Floyd   
Thursday, 10 May 2012 10:57

May 9, 1952

(WASHINGTON) -- President Strom Thurmond announced today that his thinking on race relations has "evolved," saying that he now favors equal rights for Negroes.

The president, a long-time supporter of segregation who broke with the Democratic Party over the issue and won the White House as a Dixiecrat in 1948, said his views had changed in part because of prodding by friends and family, and by his admiration for the "sacrifice and service" of Negro soldiers fighting in Korea.

"I had hesitated on racial equality in part because I thought that separate-but-equal laws would be sufficient," Mr. Thurmond said. "I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, separation of the races was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs."

The president made it clear that he was simply stating his personal view on race relations, and that he would respect the decisions of individual states on the issue. In most states, various levels of racial segregation are enforced by law. Particularly in the South, including Thurmond's native South Carolina, Negroes are not allowed to marry whites, live in white neighborhoods, attend school with whites, swim in public pools, eat in restaurants or stay in hotels frequented by whites, sit in the front of public buses, or drink out of water fountains used by whites, among many other legal strictures.

President Thurmond's statement, given in an interview with Edward R. Murrow on CBS, will have no effect on these measures. Many states have recently acted to strengthen their segregation laws.

Some civil rights activists lauded Thurmond's new thinking, calling it a powerful symbolic gesture that will boost the struggle for racial equality.

"I've been very critical of the president and his policies in many, many areas," said Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But one must give credit where credit is due. Although it has no force of law, this statement will perhaps speak to hearts and minds in the years to come and help us move forward as a nation."

Others were more skeptical. "This statement changes nothing on the ground, nothing in the daily lives of our people," said T.R. Howard, chairman of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. "The president does not recognize equality under the law as a constitutional right for all Americans, everywhere. So what is the point? He is happy to leave it up to the states: the same states that have passed and are passing law after law to keep Negroes in their place -- the lower place. We have had enough of fine words and empty gestures. Yet I fear this gesture will allow the president to buy political support at the expense of genuine action, and the injustice will go on."

 

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