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All in the Family: Al Sharpton, Strom Thurmond and Other Ironies

February 25, 2007

Almost four years after his death, the legendary segregationist Strom Thurmond continues to cast a long shadow over American politics and society. In perhaps the most ironic revelation of this Black History Month, genealogists have found that civil rights icon Al Sharpton is descended from a slave once owned by relatives of the late Jim Crow stalwart.
According to the New York Daily News, researchers Megan Smolenyak and Tony Burroughs located evidence "establishing that Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather."
For his opponents and humorists alike, Strom Thurmond is the gift that keeps on giving. In December 2003, Essie Mae Washington-Williams revealed that she was the illegitimate black daughter of Strom Thurmond, which only served to add words like "hypocrite" and "coward" to "legendary racist" on his epitaph. The master of plantation politics of course escaped full retribution: imagine his public relations nightmare had this come to light among his Dixiecrat friends in 1948.
Speaking of 1948, the legacy of Thurmond's failed segregationist presidential campaign led to the undoing of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott. Lott's effusive praise for Thurmond at his 100th birthday led to his resignation as his Senate majority leader. His resurrection as Senate Minority Whip took four years to complete. ("Minority Whip"...you can't make this stuff up.)
The shock and awe voiced by both Sharpton and the Thurmond families reflect the painful irony of the genealogists' findings. Barry Bishop, the son of one of Thurmond's sisters, was in full denial, declaring "That's a bunch of baloney." A stunned Al Sharpton responded:

"I have always wondered what was the background of my family. But nothing - nothing - could prepare me for this. It's chilling. It's amazing."

And who could disagree with him? After all, the great-grandson of Thurmond family property himself emerged as one of the more extreme voices in the civil rights divide. Sharpton, as you'll recall, was one of the perpetrators of the 1987 Tawana Brawley hoax in upstate New York, a role for which he never apologized.) Worse still, in 1995 Sharpon decried a Jewish business owner in Harlem as a "white interloper" as one of his associates urged protesters to burn the store. Several people were killed in the ensuing blaze. Only later in his career did Sharpton, like Thurmond, moderate his public statements, if not his private beliefs.
Ironically, Al Sharpton would have been Strom Thurmond's worst nightmare. As it should be.


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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