Ken Plum: States’ rights

ken plumA brief trip to the Shenandoah National Park and the Skyline Drive which Jane and I took recently with two of our grandchildren brought back a flood of memories.

Our stay-over was at Skyland Lodge where in the summer of 1959 I was cashier at the dining room and in the summer of 1960 I was room clerk. We spent the night in a unit that was next door to the Canyon unit where my Mother was maid for both those summers. Employees who lived as we did in the Shenandoah Valley stayed in employee housing for our six-day work week since the distance home was too great to commute daily. My second summer there I shared a room in Trout Cabin with the student minister who worked as a regular employee during the week and conducted a worship service on Sunday.

Living atop the Blue Ridge Mountains was a treat for me. For one thing it was a lot cooler, and we did not have air conditioning at home. Being there daily allowed me to appreciate the mountain in all its moods from cloud shrouded to clear views of the Valley below. But my most lasting memory came from my conversations and debates with my roommate.

We were both interested in politics, and at that point we could not have been more different in our views. He was a college graduate, and I was a recent graduate of a Virginia public high school. In one heated conversation he argued for the desegregation of public schools that continued to be segregated under the state official policy of Massive Resistance. I on the other hand argued–much to my continued amazement–for the states’ right to choose how they ran their schools.

After all I had just taken a course in government with an approved Virginia textbook that emphasized states’ rights. As a student with a strong interest in politics and government I had secured pamphlets from the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government that emphasized the rights of the states over an ever farther reaching federal government. My roommate poked holes in all the arguments I could offer from what I had been taught. The next day he left for graduate school at Harvard.

That conversation haunted me for days after he left. I realized he was right. The rights of individuals over the state were what was most important. That is what Jefferson had written in the Declaration of Independence. What I had been taught was the view of politicians seeking to hold power. I never used the states’ rights argument again. I went on to college and became involved in politics. My early efforts were directed against Senator Harry F. Byrd, Jr.’s Massive Resistance movement. I joined the Human Relations Council and worked for desegregation of the schools.

I wish my friend had been at Skyland Lodge last week so that we could have had that conversation again. He would certainly have been surprised at how much I have learned in the meantime.

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.