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America Still Wrestles with Issues of Race - 2003-07-01

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on affirmative action and the deaths of three prominent southern politicians are reminders that race remains a central issue in the American experience. National Correspondent Jim Malone has some reflections on the deaths of former Senator Strom Thurmond, former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox.

All three men died within days of one another. Though they had little to do with one another while they were alive, their passing offers a benchmark of sorts for a country that has wrestled with the issue of race relations from its inception.

The best known of the three was former South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond. He lived to be 100 years old and his Senate career spanned 48 years. That is a record.

He began his political career as a strong supporter of racial segregation. He even ran for president on a segregationist platform for the so-called "Dixiecrat" Party in the 1948 election. "I believe that when a principle is at stake, a fight must be made. Even if it means that to do so, one must stand alone," he once said.

Strom Thurmond left the Democratic Party in 1964 and became a Republican, a move that symbolized the gradual shift of white southern voters into the Republican Party.

Later in his career, Senator Thurmond moderated his views. He became the first southern senator to hire African-American aides and he supported a national holiday to honor civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

But Strom Thurmond's critics never quite forgot his previous controversial views on race. When Mississippi Senator Trent Lott suggested the country would have been better off had Thurmond won the 1948 election, a political firestorm erupted and Senator Lott was forced to step down from his post as Senate Republican leader.

Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson came to public prominence by a different route. The son of a minister, Mr. Jackson became the first black mayor of Atlanta in 1973. As the first African-American mayor of a major southern city, his election signaled a major shift in the racial politics of the south.

After he won a third term as mayor in 1989, Maynard Jackson played a key role in bringing the Summer Olympic Games to Atlanta in 1996. "Now Atlanta will be known," he proclaimed. "There will not be any question about what Atlanta is and where it is. It will be on the world stage, it is on the world stage now. That is very important for us because we are a dynamic, aggressive city when it comes to trade and commerce and therefore we want the world to come here in larger numbers than ever before."

Perhaps the least well known of the trio of southern politicians who died recently was former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. Lester Maddox made his initial reputation with a pick-ax handle. That was the weapon he chose to keep blacks out of his whites-only chicken restaurant in Atlanta in 1964.

Mr. Maddox sought to defy the Civil Rights Act just passed by the Congress. He rode his segregationist views to the Georgia State house in 1966 when he was elected governor. But the Maddox era ended after only one term. He was succeeded as governor by a then little-known state senator. His name was Jimmy Carter.

Unlike Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox never changed his racial views. In a 2001 interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Maddox said he wanted "his race preserved" and that he still believed that forced integration is illegal and wrong.

Ron Walters is a veteran of the civil rights movement who is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. He says the emergence of Maynard Jackson as a political force in the south symbolized the growing influence of African-American voters. He said Mayor Jackson was "benefiting from a movement that really challenged Strom Thurmond and Lester Maddox in that arena, and gave a new cast to the south that has endured since that time."

In an ironic twist, the deaths of these three men came in the same week that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision upholding the basis of affirmative action programs to foster racial diversity at colleges and universities. Activists on both sides of that divide say they have little doubt that issues related to race will remain at the center of the American political debate for years to come.