MAXWELL:  Thurmond’s South and all it embodies

12/9/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE Section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Ah, the American South the homeland of Republican Strom Thurmond, the nation’s oldest and longest-serving U.S. senator.

No other place in the country is quite like Dixie. No other has produced so many colorful real-life characters, a la Jesse Helms, Huey P. Long, Bull Conner, Lester Maddox. And who can forget the unflappable U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin Jr. of North Carolina? As head of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities investigating the Watergate scandal, Ervin laced his swipes at President Richard Nixon with memorable corn pone wisdom.

In his anthology What Made the South Different?, University of Mississippi history professor Kees Gispen and others make an effective case that The Land of Cotton possesses peculiarities, incongruities and contradictions that set it apart.

Of all the traits unique to the South, I find its humor most interesting. It is a humor that is unmatched for its ability to look inward. Although the South takes itself seriously and worships its history, it revels in laughing at itself. What other region has such wholesome self-deprecation? What other region has such profound cussedness, where grown men _ even to this day _ refuse to acknowledge the North actually won the “war of rebellion”?

The events surrounding Thurmond’s birthday party Wednesday in Washington reminded me of the South’s unique humor. At his party, Thurmond, 99, was in perfect form, again sharing his legendary fondness for women.

“I love all of you men, but you women even more,” he said.

But he could not quit.

“I appreciate every one of you, especially you ladies,” he continued. “You are good-looking, God bless you.”

Who else but a Southern coot _ a U.S. senator no less _ could get away with such brazen lecherousness? I dare a Northeasterner or a Midwesterner or a Westerner, especially a Californian, to try that routine.

Although the South is called the Bible Belt and consistently ranks as the nation’s most religious region, its devoutness and cauldron of denominations and sects are a prime source of mirth.

During a conference on Southern culture I attended last year at Wingate University in North Carolina, a panelist told this joke:

“The Episcopal Church is decidedly the “social’ church of the South. The Presbyterians are also acceptable, if less exalted. But the Baptists, Methodists, et al., are in the old tradition, the churches of the plebian elements.

“I recall the midweek evening service, in Virginia, at which a parishioner rose and asked: “Pastor, is it possible for a man to achieve salvation outside the fold of the Episcopal Church?’ The pastor, struggling with his soul, replied: “It is conceivable that there might be such a possibility _ but no gentleman would avail himself of it.”

One of my neighbors, a Presbyterian, related this tale for my benefit: “A Presbyterian home missionary came to a cabin and engaged a woman in conversation. “Are they any Presbyterians in this county?’ he asked. The woman replied: “Now, jest couldn’t say about that. These woods is full of all kinds of varmints, but I ain’t paid much attention to ’em. My husband, he’s out with the dogs now. If he was here, he’d know. He keeps his hides on the south wall of the cabin. You might go around there and see if he’s got any Presbyterian hides nailed up. I know he’s got foxes and bars and painters, and I know if there’s any Presbyterians in the county, he’s caught some of ’em before now.’ ”

Yes, Southerners are afflicted with cussedness and refuse to publicly accept losing the Civil War. But they find humor in their own stubborn pride and denial. Here is a popular yarn that assuages the agony of defeat:

“A story used to be told of an old Confederate soldier who was trudging home after the war, broken and ragged and worn. He was asked what he would do if the Yankees got after him when he reached home. “Oh, they ain’t goin’ to trouble me,’ he said. “If they do, I’ll just whip ’em agin.’ ”

The death of a person is hardly a joking matter. But the other day when newspapers carried an Associated Press story about the death of Thurmond’s babysitter, Lois Crouch Matheny Addy, Southerners started smiling from ear to ear.

Mrs. Addy, who was 109 at her death on Dec. 3, was the true Southern belle and a colorful figure in Saluda, S.C. Each election season, reporters sought her for humorous quotes. She never let them down.

In 1996, a pal of mine with a South Carolina newspaper interviewed Mrs. Addy. Knowing of Thurmond’s obsession with the opposite sex, he jokingly asked the retired schoolteacher and principal if Thurmond, during his wild-oats-sowing years, had ever been interested in her romantically.

Her response?

“Heavens no,” she said, mischievously. “Strom always liked his womenfolk younger than him.”