Ken Plum: Changing images of Virginia
On the east side of Capitol Square near the Executive Mansion in Richmond is the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial featuring 16-year-old Barbara Johns who led the student walkout that resulted in a civil rights case before the Supreme Court as part of Brown v. Board of Education that found racially-segregated schools to be unconstitutional. With her on the memorial are statues of attorneys Oliver Hill and Spotswood Robinson who argued the case and representations of persons who faced repression throughout Virginia’s racist history.
On the west end of Capitol Square, near where the new General Assembly office building is being constructed, is a lone statue of Harry F. Byrd: Senator, VA (1933–1965), Governor of Virginia (1926–1930), and Virginia State Senator (1924–1926).
Barbara Johns is about to receive an additional recognition as a civil rights pioneer. A sculpture of her will join a copy of the Houdon sculpture of George Washington in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol representing Virginia and replacing the one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that has already been removed.
A resolution making its way through the current session of the General Assembly directs that the Harry Byrd statue be removed. Byrd held political office for many years and dominated Virginia politics for nearly four decades as head of what was called the Byrd Organization that in any other state would be called the Byrd machine. He stayed in power through racist voter suppression laws that were some of the most effective in keeping Black voters from the polls and kept Virginia with the lowest voter participation among the states. He was known for his fiscal conservatism as governor and senator, and Virginia remained near the bottom of the states in funding for public schools and health and social services programs while he and his machine controlled state government. While states moved towards racial desegregation of their schools, a Byrd-devised “massive resistance” ploy delayed school desegregation in Virginia by more than a decade amid about forty or more lawsuits. In the process, some public schools were closed, and some children stayed home for as many as five years because of Byrd’s resistance.
As a teenager I worked “up on the mountain” from my home in Page County at Skyland Lodge on the Skyline Drive. As a room clerk I was told not to rent the best room we had until after 6 pm in case Senator Byrd wanted to come for the night. He was extended this courtesy for the pivotal role he played in establishing the Shenandoah National Park. His biographer Professor Ronald L. Heinemann in Harry Byrd of Virginia (University of Virginia Press, 1996) pointed out that while as governor he modernized state government for the time, his conservative economic and social policies held the state back. He was a product of the Jim Crow era, and he could never get beyond it.
Barbara Johns as a young woman took a big risk standing up for what she knew was right. She played a pivotal role in Virginia moving from a civil rights back-water to the progressive state it is now becoming. She reflects the image I want our state to have!
Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.