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Former US Senator Strom Thurmond Dies at 100 - 2003-06-27

Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, the oldest U.S. senator ever and probably one of the most colorful, died on Thursday at the age of 100.

"The senate will come to order. The chaplain will now deliver the opening prayer," announced Strom Thurmond.

Until advancing age and declining health finally slowed him down, Strom Thurmond was there every morning, calling the Senate into session. He spent more than 48 years on Capitol Hill, which made him both the oldest and the longest-serving senator in American history. He ran for his last term in 1996, even as opinion polls suggested the voters wanted him to retire. In the end Mr. Thurmond won that race handily, keeping his place in the Senate Republican leadership.

Strom Thurmond was born in December 1902 in the small town of Edgefield, South Carolina. He began his political career as a Democrat in 1929, served in World War II and was elected state governor just afterward.

In 1948 he ran for president on a third-party [Dixiecrat] ticket with a platform of racial segregation. Years later he argued the issue was not race, but the rights of the states, which he felt were being abused by President Truman.

"Truman did a lot of good things," he said. "He dropped the [atomic] bomb [on Japan], which was good, some other things. But he wanted to bring the power to Washington. I wanted to keep it with the states and that is the reason I ran against him."

Mr. Thurmond also opposed many civil rights laws of the 1950s and 60s. To block one of those bills he took the Senate floor and talked for more than 24 hours. That record-setting speech, or filibuster, became part of his legend. The legend gained another chapter when, in his 60s, the senator married a 22-year-old former beauty queen. They later had four children.

Mr. Thurmond eventually moderated his stand on race, but otherwise kept his conservative views, especially on the need for a strong national defense. He switched to the Republican Party in 1964 because, as he put it, he thought the Democrats were leading the country toward socialism.

As he aged, Mr. Thurmond sometimes seemed confused or hard of hearing. But during President Clinton's impeachment trial, when younger senators let their minds wander or even dozed off, he sat attentively and took in every word. He led an active life until his last few years, setting milestones and still representing his state.