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LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES

Interview With Armstrong Williams

Aired June 27, 2003 - 20:45   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Thurmond, of course, changed with the times, ultimately, change not always easy or smooth. Syndicated columnist Armstrong Williams was once an intern in his office. He joins us from Washington to share some of his observations with us this evening. Welcome, Armstrong, always good to see you.
ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Hi, Paula, how are you.

ZAHN: I'm fine. Thanks. I wanted to start off with a little bit of one of your syndicated pieces that appeared in papers all over the country today when you wrote about the senator, and you said rather effusively, "the senator effused wit, insight and brilliance in all directions." You went on to say, "The sheer force of personality made him a man so vastly energetic that one could not help but be endeared by his liveliness."

Now, how do you square it out with some of his original views on race and his opposition to integration?

WILLIAMS: Well, we must consider the times that we're in. Obviously, all of us have a past. No one will refute the fact that he was a segregationist. And that's his past. But segregationist does not mean that you're racist or you're anti-black. There are many people today who believe in segregation. Just look at the pulpits on Sunday, where we go to church. There are many people who exist today that don't believe in interracial marriages. It doesn't necessarily -- it's just part of their belief system.

The beauty of Senator Thurmond is that he evolved. He changed. He set an example. Not only for the state of South Carolina, but for the Republican Party and the country, is that we all have to move beyond the fears and the racist past and the de jure segregation which existed in this country. And there's still remnants of it in this country that exist today.

And there's no better way of doing that than just looking at his record. It's not just about rhetoric. I mean, he supported the Voting Rights Act. He's the first southern senator to have a black staffer on staff. He supported extension of the Martin Luther King holiday bill. When Ms. Coretta Scott King's commission was defunded during the Reagan administration, when Republicans had taken over the Senate, there were many senators that did not want any further money to go in that commission. We had a conversation and were able to involve Senator Thurmond in that conversation, because at that time he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. He had a conversation with her, and within hours he had restored funding to the level twice as much as what it had before.

ZAHN: I'd love to get at more of the personal story here, because I'm really fascinated by how you all became friends. And I know you talked about this change that he made through his career. And you said that his rhetoric in the past didn't necessarily make him a racist. But I want to quickly put on the screen a quote. And this goes way back, from 1948. But it might give some people perspective on how far the senator moved, where he said "there is not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, into our churches."

Did you ever confront the senator in the beginning stages of your friendship with any of what he had said in the past to get more comfortable with him?

WILLIAMS: I actually -- Paula, when we met, the first thing I said to him, and we met at a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) seafood hut in Mullins, South Carolina, when I extended my hand, I said, "I hear you're a racist." And he chuckled and said, "if that's what you believe, when you graduate from high school, you send me a resume, and come work for me, and find out for yourself."

And he talked about the politics of it. What it would take to get elected and to build a certain base of people who voted. And that he did things that he was not proud of. But then he got to the point where it's just not who he was, because even during the height of the poll tax in the state of South Carolina, he fought against it. He defended black men as a lawyer who were falsely accused of rape in that state. And then he realized that he could do -- it was not enough just to go along. It was not enough to be a part of the southern strategy. You had to include all people, because it went against his faith and what he believed in. And he started this evolution, where he really realized, you know, even though I may -- things may come out of my mouth that is perceived as racist, in my heart when I say these things, it's not what I feel and it's not what I believe.

ZAHN: I hate to cut you off there, but we unfortunately have to move on. It really is a fascinating snapshot, how you came into each other's lives. And we appreciate you sharing some of your remembrance with us tonight. And we'll be listening for you on the radio and looking for you on TV. Thanks, Armstrong, take care.

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