A lot of one-time Virginia heroes came down last week. The departure of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville made national news.
The departure of Harry Byrd Sr.’s statue from the State Capitol grounds drew less attention—even though you can argue that Byrd had more influence on Virginia than Lee ever did.
Byrd certainly lasted longer. Lee’s main claim to fame lasted for four bloody years. Byrd ruled—there’s really no better word—over Virginia for four decades, and his parts of his legacy continue in state policy today.
Lee excites strange and misguided emotions from those who still can’t reconcile themselves to the reality of what the Southern cause was all about. But Byrd is the more current figure and, therefore, the one we should be more concerned about.
Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, could have had the credit for sending Byrd’s statue packing.
A year ago he introduced a bill to do just that. He intended it as a joke, though, a way to jibe Democrats who were trying to bring down Confederate statues. He thought they’d be offended since Byrd was a Democrat.
Instead, he was astonished when Democrats took him seriously and wanted to sign on to his measure.
Walker withdrew his bill, but not before he revealed himself too out of touch with modern sensibilities—and out of touch with his own party’s heritage.
For decades, Virginia Republicans were the anti-Byrd party in the state—long before there were liberal dissenters within Democratic ranks.
Republicans should be cheering the loudest that Byrd’s statue has been carted away. It was Republicans such as Ted Dalton who hammered away at the Byrd Machine in the ’50s, and Linwood Holton who finally helped bring it down in 1969. Sadly, too many Republicans today have turned away from their own history.
We should also remember that the Byrd Machine was a political machine before Byrd took over its operation.
In the 1880s, Virginia started down a different path. The Readjusters—a local variant of the Republican Party—took power and enacted what constituted a progressive agenda for the time.
It united small farmers in Western Virginia with newly enfranchised Black voters. The Readjuster-led state government opened schools for Black students, set about training Black teachers at Virginia State University, abolished the whipping post (which had been used primarily against Black offenders), and hired Black staff members for, admittedly, low-level state offices.
The Readjusters, true to their name, also “readjusted” the state debt, which helped state taxpayers but hurt wealthy bondholders.
All this was too much for conservative voters. In the backlash that followed, conservative Democrats came to power in the late 1880s and set about instituting what we know today as Jim Crow laws.
That culminated with the infamous 1902 state convention, where Carter Glass of Lynchburg was the driving force. That convention rewrote the state constitution to disenfranchise as many people—both Black and white—as possible.
Knowing that soon-to-be-disenfranchised voters might vote down the new constitution, the convention simply “proclaimed” it as the new law of the land.
The number of voters in the state was cut in half. From that point until the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act in 1965, Virginia ceased to be a democracy—and became a one-party oligarchy.
That one party was a conservative Democratic Party, led for much of the time by U.S. Sen. Thomas Martin of Charlottesville. The Byrd Organization grew out of what was known as the Martin Organization.The point is, Byrd did not invent the state’s politics, but he perfected them. Few men—and they were almost entirely men in those days—rose to power without Byrd’s approval.
Let’s give Byrd his due: As governor in the late ’20s, Byrd was considered a reformer who built a modern highway system.
But let’s back up a bit: Byrd rose to prominence by opposing a bond issue that might have built roads more quickly but incurred debt, something he abhorred. Instead, he advocated his cherished “pay as you go,” using the gasoline tax to pay for roads.
The argument for bonds is that roads are a generational investment so it’s fair to spread that cost over generations. Few people could afford to buy a house if they had to pay for it all in cash.
The gas tax may have made sense in the 1920s, but it makes less sense with each passing day: Decades ago Virginia had to start dipping into other revenue streams to pay for roads and will have to do so even more in the future. Electric cars use no gas, so those drivers pay no gas tax for the roads they drive on.
More broadly, Byrd favored the state paying for roads over schools, which he saw as a local responsibility. That’s the philosophical basis of the disparity we see today between schools in the state’s most affluent communities and the schools is not-so-affluent places.
Here’s the ultimate historical irony: Today Northern Virginia is a stronghold of liberal Democrats, who voted to take down Byrd’s statue but still benefit from his fiscal policies: They get lots of fancy roads while rural Virginia has schools held together by duct tape.
Byrd died in 1966 but some of his policies shackle us still. If we wanted to topple not just Byrd’s statue but also his policies, we’d pass a constitutional amendment do so away with that sanctioned disparity. (Both a Republican, Bill Stanley of Franklin County, and a Democrat, Chris Hurst of Montgomery County, have proposed to do so. Both, notably, are from rural Virginia, and both, just as notably, saw their measured strangled by so-called liberal Democrats from Northern Virginia.)
Byrd was immortalized in bronze for his penny-pinching fiscal policies; that likeness came down because of his racial policies.
Byrd coined the term “massive resistance,” a phrase that perfectly captures the state’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s order to desegregate schools.
Gov. Lindsay Almond may have been the one to close some state schools rather than see them integrated, but Byrd was the one egging him on.
When Almond eventually buckled and allowed some token integration, Byrd was outraged. Historian and longtime Virginia journalist Virginius Dabney once told an interviewer: “Harry Byrd wanted Almond to go to jail.”
Argue about Lee all you want, but there’s no argument about Byrd: His policies gave us inadequate schools and, for some, no schools at all. Taking down his statue is nice symbolism, but what Virginia really needs to do is undo his policies.
The Roanoke Times