A lot of one-time Virginia heroes came down this month. The departure of the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville made national news.
The departure of Harry Byrd Sr.’s statue from the Virginia 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 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.
Virginia Delegate 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 liberal dissenters were 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 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. ...
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.”