Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Influential People: Strom Thurmond and Mr. Williams, Sr.

BOND: Now, let's move forward to the time you meet Strom Thurmond and you're relatively young.

WILLIAMS: Sixteen.

BOND: And your father takes you to a place where he's speaking and what happens there?

WILLIAMS: Well, my father had read in the paper that Strom Thurmond was speaking at the Dry Dock Seafood Hut. See, my father wanted us to be governor and senators. His attitude was that he was going to make a lot of money and we did not struggle. We grew up in an affluent family. I thank God for that. Did not have to struggle. And he said, "Let me take care of making the money and you all need to be elected officials because, you know what, he said the only way you change the government is you have people like you who's unwilling to punish people for the way they punished us in the past, judging us by the hue of our skin." He said, "You've got to be fair. Justice has to be fair." Everybody feels they got to get the fair treatment and my father felt that he was raising fair, compassionate children.

And, so my father said, "Well, look, Strom Thurmond is going to be at the Dry Dock Seafood Hut. I think he's the guy that can take you to Washington." He always wanted me to go to Washington, my father, and I always listened.

BOND: Let me stop you right there. Now, I know you say you get your entrepreneurial spirit from your father, but what you are describing to me now seems to me that he is saying the entrepreneurial spirit is great. You know, making money -- that's great. But that's something I'm going to do so that your generation doesn't have to do it and you instead can go into public service. Is that right?

WILLIAMS: Oh, he never thought I would be in business. He never thought I would be an entrepreneur. That was something that was never encouraged in our household. It was to get the best education, background for office, and make the government and the state better.

BOND: And what about your siblings? Any of them people you would call entrepreneurs?

WILLIAMS: The majority of them are. Yes.

BOND: So, what about public service?

WILLIAMS: I have a brother who is a state senator. I also have a brother who runs a political action committee. But we were sort of, I mean, politics, it's interesting. It was something -- And we grew up and my father would have these fundraisers for these politicians who were running for office. We'd have to glad hand and shake. We had to be at the reception and it was good for business for him. When there was a problem with the farm, he could always call Farm Bureau. Always call the governor's office and they always responded. My father was a Republican, and so I actually thought I was going to go and become a politician.

BOND: For most of your life, your father is a Republican in a Democratic state.


BOND: And he is Republican at a time when most Democrats are saying, "You know, these people, just a little tiny bit of them, they're not doing anything. They are no threat to us. They'll never take over anything." How did he operate in that situation? I mean, why does he have this access to the government? Why would the governor pay any attention to a black Republican?

WILLIAMS: Well, he gave money to politicians. That's where I get it from.

BOND: I see.

WILLIAMS: He would support them. See, he felt money could do just about anything. He said money is good, but he said if the farm life continues, he felt we would be well taken care of. But he actually thought that politicians were for rent. And that was nothing about principle. He didn't want us to become that, but certainly, I mean, you had this guy. He was an anomaly. Here he is a Republican. He has one of the finest farms in the state. Seriously. He built one of the finest farms in the state. It's a great place for entertaining, which we continue the tradition to the day. We have governors. We have people like Steve Forbes. We have everybody who is anybody come there for a fundraiser because of the way it's laid out, the way it is built.

And so, my father, when he saw this about Strom Thurmond, he wanted for some time for me to meet the Senator. So, and listen, we're in the middle of our tobacco crop. He said, "Boy, get the black gum off your hands and take a shower because we are about to go see Strom." So we get to the Dry Dock Seafood Hut and we got there just when Senator Thurmond was leaving and we walked in. Some of the people recognized my father because he had a strong reputation in the county and just before he was about to be introduced to Strom Thurmond, I extended my hand and I said, "Hello Senator. I am Armstrong Williams and I hear you are a racist."

BOND: And what did Thurmond say?

WILLIAMS: Oh, no, it's what my father said, forget about what Thurmond said! I thought my father was going to slap me actually, but we were in public.

BOND: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: Can you imagine my chocolate-shaded -- my father red, beaming through his face. He was furious because he had worked so hard to make this happen. And so Thurmond chuckled and he told my father not to worry about it. "At least he's honest. I am sure you raised him that way." So then my father sort of cooled out and my father said, "Well, Son, make sure you exchange numbers because Senator, I want him to work for you one day." He said, "A lot of people say these things about you, but I told my boy, you get to know people before you judge them. And I want my boy to get to know you because I have plans for him and I know you can help him." So my father was really doing all the talking. I will still sitting back there afraid to say anything else because I didn't want to get on his bad side anymore.

So, now we exchange cards and the Senator said to me, "You sound like a bright young man. What grade are you in?" He said, "When you graduate from high school, if you ever want to come to Washington and intern for me, come work for me. Why don't you decide whether I'm a racist or not." So he issued me a challenge. So, look, it was like it went straight over my head. I had no interest in following up with Senator Thurmond. So my father stayed on me and sure enough, I would write him and he would always write back. And he would call every now and then.

And so what happened was, I got into college and at the end of my freshman year, I started thinking about my father's tobacco fields and sand-lugging and cropping tobacco and I said, you know what, I have got to find something else to do other than working on that tobacco farm during the summer so I said to my father, I said, "I'm kind of trying to get some other experiences during the summer to expand my portfolio." He said, "Boy, you need to follow up with Strom Thurmond and go work with him." He said, "I have been telling you this because if not, I am going to put your A back in this tobacco field." That's the way my father talked.

So sure enough, I did not want to work in the tobacco field that summer so I called Senator Thurmond. I will never forget it. He called me back the next day and I said, "You know, I have been thinking about you. I have gotten your notes periodically." I said, "I want to take you up on your challenge. I want to come intern for you to see what Washington is like," and I will tell you this -- I will never forget this -- when I came to Washington, I went to the Capitol and it was at night. And I looked over the Capitol and I had this feeling. You know, you have to understand, it was my first time out of the state of South Carolina. All I had known was rural South, outhouses, not our own. Just a whole different world and when I saw that I said, "Oh my God." I began to see my father's vision and I fell in love with another way of life that I felt that I could really thrive at, so I started working for him and I worked for him almost every summer and that began the relationship.

And I have to thank my father because he had vision, but the difference was, unlike some people today, I trusted my parents more than I trusted myself. I knew that my father, and he is crazy sometimes, would absolutely not give me advice unless he had my best interest at heart. And even though he was not educated like some parents, I knew my father loved me and I knew my father had a strong inner spirit about what we were capable of doing and he encouraged that. And so that started me to actually believing that I could run for public office.

BOND: Isn't there an anomaly between your description of your father as someone who does not trust the government and is suspicious of the government and then someone who sends you to, in effect, work for the government and become a part of it and whose aspiration is that you will become part of the government?

WILLIAMS: Remember what I said to you -- it was the interesting thing about Daddy is that he felt that the government would change. And that it would be better. Maybe not during his time, but in a time when his children would come along, that the government would be ready for someone like us to effect change. Realizing that it would always be imperfect. The government is representative of its people. In order for the government to do better, you've got to have good people to run for office with strong values and a different way of looking at life. So, his distrust in the government, true that exists, but he never lost faith that the government could change much later down the road and be better as more and more people were allowed to participate in that system of government.

BOND: Now, when I'm thinking back about Strom Thurmond, one of the things I that I remember about him is he had a reputation, as you've discussed, for being very close to his constituents. Constituent service like nobody's business. That of all the senators, if you want somebody to return your call or write you a letter back, Strom Thurmond was the guy. What did you do when you interned for him these summers and what did you pick up from him or did you pick up things from him that you have carried through life?

WILLIAMS: You know, for some reason, the Senator liked me. I have to tell you.

BOND: You're a likeable guy, Armstrong.

WILLIAMS: No, no, no. It's much more than that. He would -- in the evenings, he would ask me to stay late and he would share with me letters from the constituency. He would share with me how legislation worked in the Congress. He would take me over privately to Capitol Hill, to the Congress, to the Senate, and show to me how the different bodies, the Majority Leader and how all the interactions of the Congress worked. He would show me how a bill was put together.

BOND: Did he treat his other interns this way?

WILLIAMS: No, [he] did not. And they really couldn't understand it. It was different. I cannot explain it. My mother said it was her prayers, but I was in class. I was with the historian all the time. And during Thanksgiving when I really started working with him, when I could not come home, even when I had a job in Washington, during Thanksgiving, it was always, if I were in town, he would bring me over to his office just before Thanksgiving. He'll let me see all the things that are going on, the things that he is involved in, things that may be in the press versus what the reality of it is.

And I will never forget. I got to tell you something. I really respected Strom Thurmond. I must tell you, more than anybody else. More than Justice [Clarence] Thomas, Strom Thurmond has had more of an impact on my life than anybody. I will tell you why -- because he was very kind to me. And he was very sincere and he is very honorable. He said, "You know, I was racist. Let's be clear." He said, "I was a segregationist." He said, "But I had to be." He said, "But let me tell you something. I fought against the poll tax. I did what I could." He said, "You must consider the times. But it's men like you, like your father said, who must change those times." He said, "Your father is a good man. I have a lot of respect for him. And I have a lot of respect for how he is raising you because you're inquisitive." He said, "I like the fact that you asked me whether I was a racist," he said, "because most kids don't have the confidence to ask a senator something like that. You didn't ask me that to insult me. You were inquisitive as to what you were getting into." And, I mean, listen, I took a lot of hits for my association with Strom Thurmond.

BOND: Oh, I'm sure.

WILLIAMS: You have no idea. Especially at South Carolina State, but I liked this guy. He taught me about how important it is to have a senator in Washington. He said, "Everything in Washington has to do with whether you are close to the President, the Speaker of the House, or some senator, or some Secretary of a Cabinet." He said, "I am going to be the person you are close to." And I will never forget -- and I used to tell people when I first came to Washington that I was close to Strom Thurmond because everybody saw him as a racist and they laughed at me and thought I was a joke. It was very hurting and I remember I would call my father, he would say, "Well, ask the Senator to do something to change that." On a simple thing. I never thought about it, so I went to see the Senator and I said, "You know, no one believes that I am your boy." I mean, I didn't say it like that. I said, "Well, nobody believes that, you got to help me out."

He said, "Well what should we do?" I said, "Well, maybe I'll have a party and invite all these naysayers and you come," and so he said, "Well, you only have a one-room apartment that's infested with roaches." I said, "Yeah, but that's all I got. I'd like for you to come." He said, "Set it up and I'll come. And so he said, "but you got to brief me on what to say." At that time, Barry White had this song out "It's time for change, everything must change." So the Senator and I would go into his office going over all of the words to make sure he knew the words to the song.

BOND: I can't imagine Strom Thurmond and Barry White.

WILLIAMS: But, anyhow, so I put together this little invitation where I said, "I want you to come to my place and meet my very special guest, my mentor and hero, Senator Strom Thurmond." And so Senator Thurmond said, "Now, you know, they are not going to believe you so I am going to give the impression that I am not going to show up and you will see the real nature of people, but you just call me and I am going to be downstairs," because he was right around the corner. So, sure enough, Dr. Bond, my little apartment was packed. There must have been a hundred and seventy-five people all the way around to the elevator. And you knew when Strom got off the elevator because people started howling and screaming. I mean, it was like a rock concert. And he comes in -- oh, he was old then. He was in his seventies then, so he comes in and he said, "This boy is like a son to me," he said, "and when I came over here, I heard Barry White on the radio." He said, "Barry White was singing, 'It's time for a change.'" People were weeping.

BOND: Just fell out, fell out. Oh, yeah.

WILLIAMS: Fell out! And that was it. That's what changed my status in Washington was that I had a Senator and he stayed with me and he supported me on all the things that he felt that would advance me in the city. So, look, I definitely owe Strom a debt of gratitude, but my father even a deeper gratitude who had the vision and the foresight to believe that this could be possible.