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LeftOut: Essie Mae Comes Out

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And the truth sets her free

by Daryl Moore

“I wanna tell you ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

When Strom Thurmond made that statement in 1948, he was the Dixiecrat candidate for president, running on the platform of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

When Thurmond made that statement, he was also the father of a 23-year-old biracial daughter—Essie Mae—who was half black. Thurmond fathered the girl when he was 22 years old and slept with his parents’ black maid, who was then 16.

In 1957, when Essie Mae Washington-Williams was 28 years old, Thurmond gave what was then—and is still—the longest filibuster in U.S. Senate history. Thurmond stood and spoke for 24 hours and 18 minutes in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the purpose of which was to increase the number of registered black voters.

Thurmond finally died on June 26, 2003, having lived 100 years and having spent half of those years serving in the Senate opposing civil rights. In his final years, Thurmond hinted that he had had a change of heart about civil rights. He finally dropped his opposition to the Voting Rights Act. And he supported a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr.

But he never publicly acknowledged Williams, who was 78 years old when Thurmond died. She waited until Thurmond died to come forward. She said she waited because she did not want to harm his political career, which she had followed.

And if Williams followed her dad’s political career, she knew that he preached hate, segregation, and never admitting “the nigger race” into white society. He certainly never admitted his daughter into his lily-white life.

In coming forward, Williams said that she had learned who her father was when she was a teenager. She said a lot of people in the black community knew, but didn’t tell. She didn’t tell, either, for 65 years.

When she finally told, Williams explained that “there are many stories like Sally Hemmings’ and mine,” referring to Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with one of his slaves who bore him at least one child. She continued, “The unfortunate measure is that not everyone knows about these stories that helped to make America what it is today.”

Williams is right. Her story needed to be told. And the “unfortunate measure” is that no one knew for 65 years that Strom Thurmond had a mulatto daughter. No one knew because she waited 65 years to come out as Strom Thurmond’s daughter.

When Williams finally came out—when she finally acknowledged publicly whom she is—she said, “at last I feel completely free.”

Coming out does that. Whoever you are. It liberates you from secrets that don’t need to be kept.

I wish Williams had come out decades ago. I wish she had come out in 1948, when her dad ran for president as a Dixiecrat. I wish she had come out in 1957, when he filibustered for 24 hours in an attempt to keep blacks from voting. I wish she had come out when he was alive, so that he would have been forced to publicly acknowledge what a hypocrite he had been for the last 80 years of his life.

But she didn’t. She came out when she was ready. I just wish she had been ready 50 years ago. If she had come out as Strom Thurmond’s biracial daughter in 1953, he might never have been elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954.

If Essie Mae Washington-Williams had come out in 1954, she might have changed history. But she didn’t. And now we’ll never know what America might have been like with Strom Thurmond out of the political picture. But we do know it couldn’t have been any whiter.

Writing from the liberal end of the spectrum, Houston attorney Daryl Moore has a general practice and is board certified in civil and appellate law.

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Daryl Moore

Daryl Moore is a former contributor to OutSmart magazine. 

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