That Time My Grandmother Threatened Strom Thurmond

“Good morning, Lucy.”

“If you come on this side of the street I’m hitting you with the newspaper, Strom.”

***      ***      ***

My grandmother, Lucy Johnson, used to talk about Strom Thurmond from time to time. She spent most of her life in Aiken, South Carolina. He was from nearby Edgefield. 

 Lucy Johnson, my grandmother

Lucy Johnson, my grandmother

Most people know Thurmond as the longtime politician who was a Democrat, Dixiecrat, and then Republican. After holding the office of South Carolina Governor from 1947-1951, Thurmond spent nearly fifty years (1954-2003) in the U.S. Senate. He even ran for president in 1948 as part of the pro-segregation Dixiecrats (he helped author the anti-Brown v. Board “Southern Manifesto”). 

My grandmother, however, knew Thurmond as a neighbor. For years I had heard stories about how the politician, after his first wife, Jean, died of a brain tumor in 1960 at age 33, remarried a much younger woman, Nancy. Thurmond was 66 at the time of their marriage, 44 years his young wife’s senior. And Nancy Thurmond, former Miss South Carolina, was a classmate of my mother’s in high school. 

After getting married the second time, Thurmond did what any man in his mid-60s with a beautiful young wife might do—he started exercising a lot to try and get into shape. My grandmother frequently told the story quoted at the outset of this blog post. 

Thurmond would be out for his morning jog, and my grandmother would often see him when she was out to get the paper. Knowing her, she might have planned her trips to get the paper when she thought he might be out. She could be, to put it kindly, a bit confrontational. After Thurmond’s salutation, she would threaten him with the paper. There was always such bitter resentment when my grandmother told this story, and I could never quite understand why.

Sure, I dislike Strom Thurmond as much as a lot of people do. He was a philandering racist. But there was clearly more to this story than I knew. Tonight my mother told me the rest of it.

Apparently my grandparents were in a square dancing class with Thurmond and his first wife, and every time Thurmond passed by my grandmother he would grab her rear end without any sort of permission. Like many women at the time probably would have (beyond the sexual politics of the time, Thurmond was an extremely powerful man), my grandmother put up with it for a few passes. But, after one time too many she cornered Jean Thurmond and told her, “If he touches my ass one more time, I’m going to deck him in the middle of the room in front of everybody.”

As the story goes, the harassment stopped after that.

Now, I should give some expected caveats here. The above stories are family stories passed down to me either directly from my grandmother or from her via my mother. I have no way of proving their veracity, as all the involved parties are deceased. (Of course nobody could prove them false, either, I doubt.) But my grandmother believed these stories a great deal. I wanted to write this blog post to give power to a past woman’s experiences and give her a voice.

And, if the story is true, I am quite proud of my grandmother for threatening Strom Thurmond when he clearly deserved it.