Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics

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J. Harvie Wilkinson III. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics 1945-1966. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia. 1968. 403 pages. $40.00


Harry Byrd did not begin machine politics in Virginia. The Democratic Party was led by Thomas Martin Between 1894 until 1919. Byrd, owner of The Winchester Star newspaper and a large apple-growing, packing and processing business won the governorship in 1925. As governor, he ‘converted a million dollar deficit into a handsome surplus’ (6), sponsored anti-lynching legislation, implemented ‘voting and tax reforms … abolished the state tax on land and promoted rural electrification, conservation and the tourist trade.’ (6) He reorganized state government. In 1933, Byrd was elected to the United States Senate where he served until 1965.

‘Abhorrence of public debt and cash drawer frugality were the hallmarks of the Byrd era in Virginia.’ (4) In Congress, Byrd was known for his fiscal conservatism. He called himself a New Deal Democrat, meaning the frugal New Deal platform of 1932. He deplored excessive federal spending and ultimately resorted to ‘golden silence’ on national elections to avoid supporting spendthrift liberal candidates. Byrd held to a states’ rights theory of political parties (218) that did not require state Democrats to back a national ticket. Thus conservative Virginians did not move to the Republican Party even if they voted Republican in a national election.

J. Harvie Wilkinson calls Harry Byrd ‘a master political structuralist.’ (215) Virginia politics was controlled by a variety of techniques, ‘poll tax laws, legislative appointment, committee assignments, the circuit judge system, the State Compensation Board, the makeup of county government, the role of E.R. Combs, (chairman of the State Compensation Board), the appointive powers surrounding the governor and many other shrewd devices.’ (215) State officials were elected in years that did not have national elections which minimized the coattail effect. Byrd is recognized as the proponent of ‘pay as you go’ financing for Virginia government. This philosophy had serious consequences for the quality of education in Virginia which was to prove the ‘Achilles heel’ (45) of the Byrd organization.

Black population in Virginia counties ranged from zero percent in far western Buchanan County to eighty-one percent in Charles City County. This diversity was reflected in political views and views on integration. Lindsay Almond, governor of Virginia in 1954, claimed Virginia as a whole was opposed to racial mixing, but outside of Southside (the area below Richmond on the southeastern border of state that was more than 60% black), the state evinced more of a willingness to face reality.’ (120)--Mlinhart 15:06, 21 Feb 2006 (EST)


J. Harvie Wilkinson is a federal judge on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals who was considered as a possibility for a Republican nomination to the Supreme Court. .He began his study of Virginia politics as a student at Yale. This book is not primarily about civil rights; the focus is on the changes in the Virginia political scene as a whole. Between 1945 and 1966, Virginia citizens and politicians were deeply concerned about civil rights issues, in particular integration.

Massive resistance was the Byrd machine’s response to the Supreme Court integration decision. Leaders supported a doctrine of interposition in Virginia like the Mississippi whites described by Dittmer, which argued the state could “interpose’; that is ‘the state asserted its sovereignty to resist and even nullify the effects of what it considered an unconstitutional and intolerable federal ruling.’ (129) A special session of the legislature in August, 1956 passed laws that caused Virginia to resemble a ‘modern Nineveh with its numerous rings of labyrinthine walls.’ (131) Applications from blacks to white schools were to be made to a Pupil Placement Board. If the decision of the Placement Board was overturned in federal courts, the governor was required to close ‘schools under court order and remove them from the public school system.’ (131) If a local school was willing or ordered to open on an integrated basis, state funds would be cut off. Localities could either try to operate integrated schools or students could get tuition grants to attend private schools. (132)

In 1958, ‘lightening struck’ (138) Virginia. Warren County was put under court order to integrate. Governor Lindsay Almond ordered the school closed. Within a few weeks, schools were closed in Charlottesville and Norfolk. Warren County and Charlottesville organized private schools that kept most white children in class but in Norfolk, at least 3,000 of approximately 10,000 students were not attending school. Newspapers and business leaders pressured the Governor to relent. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declared school-closing and funds cut off were contrary to the Virginia constitution. Governor Almond decided to abandon massive resistance. ‘This marks the first major policy matter on which Senator Byrd, southside Virginia, and courthouse conservatism (local courthouse officials were key players in the Byrd machine) did not have their way.’ (150)

Like Huey Long in Louisiana, Harry Byrd as governor in the 1920’s fashioned a controlling political organization. Unlike Long, whom Brinkley describes as using publicity and the media, Byrd acted the role of the patrician who rarely aroused emotion. He provided strong support to farmers but no clash with business. Unlike Long, he did not increase public services but ‘made a fetish of frugality.’ (49) Both were in Congress and maintained control of their home state from Washington. In national politics, Long used publicity to influence, while Byrd worked with a coalition of Southerners and ultimately gained a key role as Finance Committee Chairman in the Senate.

Unlike Sitkoff, Wilkinson does not dwell on violent confrontation. The resistance in Virginia was insidious and not the blatant violent resistance of Mississippi. Wilkinson says little about the role of black activism but most of the pressure for school integration required cases initiated by anti-segregation lawyers.

Wilkinson claims that for the 5 years before 1954, the Byrd organization was struggling to maintain dominance. The Supreme Court decision caused Virginians to focus attention on integration rather than address their concerns about the machine’s fiscal parsimony. In a sense, the Byrd machine lasted longer than it might have without the integration issue. Black participation affected voting results especially in Tidewater area. The Virginia Independent Voters League worked to influence the black electorate and the ‘number of registered Negro voters practically doubled between 1957 and 1964.’ (194) A significant increase in African-American voters occurred in 1964 ‘as a result of the repeal of the poll tax in federal elections.’ (194) In the 1965 gubernatorial election, Democrat Miles Godwin won the race for governor but he did it by winning support not only from some of the old-line Byrd organization, but from ‘more moderate and liberal urbanites.’ (282) The ‘Negro vote indisputably provided Godwin’s margin of victory.’ (282) Further signs of change came with the passage of sales tax legislation and the end of pay-as-you-go. In the 1968 Democratic primary, with Harry Byrd on his deathbed, his son was selected for United States Senator. However, 2 aging Democrats who had strong positions in Congress, A. Willis Robertson and Howard W. Smith were defeated. In 1970, a Republican, Linwood Holton, Jr. would begin his term as governor. A culmination of civil rights activity occurred in 1990 when Douglas Wilder, became the first elected African-American Governor in the United States. --Mlinhart 15:06, 21 Feb 2006 (EST)

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