Memorial for Harry F. Byrd Jr. causes tension in Va. General Assembly

A statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr. sits right on Capitol Square. Legislators pass it at least twice a day as they shuffle between their offices and the chambers of the House and Senate.

If it irks any of them to see the former governor, U.S. senator and segregationist memorialized in bronze, they don’t let on.

It was a different story Tuesday as the General Assembly prepared to honor Byrd’s son, the late Harry F. Byrd Jr., who followed in his father’s footsteps in the U.S. Senate and segregationism.

Black legislators and some white Democrats walked out of the Virginia House and Senate in protest Tuesday as relatives of the late U.S. senator were presented with resolutions celebrating his life and public service.

“He was an unrepentant segregationist,” said Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico), who slipped out of chambers to avoid the presentation. “I don’t have anything against the family. I don’t have anything against the sponsors of the legislation. It would be very difficult for me to vote for or applaud an unrepentant segregationist.”

The younger Byrd had supported Virginia’s “massive resistance” to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling that outlawed segregation in public schools. He stood by that policy decades later, maintaining it had helped Virginia avoid the violence that accompanied integration elsewhere.

The legislators opposed to honoring Byrd made their exits quietly — so quietly that the delegate presenting the resolution to the late senator’s two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren did not even notice. But the demonstration was a vivid reminder of how painful Virginia’s racial history remains. Harry Byrd Jr., who served 17 years as a state senator before assuming the U.S. Senate seat held by his father, died in July at 98.

“He played a significant role in Virginia history, but he wasn’t always on the right side of the issues and, believe me, I understand that sensitivity,” said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Fauquier), who sponsored the measure in the Senate.

Del. Mark J. Berg (R-Frederick), who presented the House resolution, said Byrd’s long life in public service merited recognition. “I understand what the other side is saying about the resolution,” Berg said. “I just thought it was the appropriate thing to do.”

Asked about the protest, Thomas T. Byrd, one of Byrd’s sons, said: “We’re very appreciative of the General Assembly passing a joint resolution.”

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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