Ex-Rep. Watkins Abbitt Dies at 90
Watkins M. Abbitt Sr., 90, who as a conservative congressman supported Virginia's policy of resistance to school integration, died July 13. The cause of death was not reported.
Mr. Abbitt, whose political career spanned the turbulent era of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, died at Virginia Baptist Hospital. He represented rural southern Virginia for a quarter of a century.
Mr. Abbitt, a Democrat from Appomattox, entered the House of Representatives in February 1948 to represent the 4th District and served until January 1973, when he retired. He was unopposed in most of his campaigns for reelection.
Besides being a fierce opponent of court-ordered school desegregation in the 1950s and '60s, Mr. Abbitt was a steadfast foe of increased federal spending and expansion of federal authority.
He and most Virginia Democrats of the day followed the political leadership of U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. Mr. Abbitt's uncompromising conservative stands earned him labels such as "conservative among conservatives" and "unreconstructed rebel." From 1964 to 1970, Mr. Abbitt was chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party.
He was an outspoken critic of the U.S. Supreme Court, once referring to the court's decision to ban segregation as the "naked and arrogant declaration of nine men."
His congressional district included Prince Edward County, which closed its public schools in 1959 rather than yield to court-ordered integration. In 1964, when the Supreme Court ordered the reopening of Prince Edward schools on a racially integrated basis, Mr. Abbitt introduced legislation in the House that would have prohibited federal courts from compelling a state or taxing authority to impose or collect taxes.
The U.S. Supreme Court, he said, had assumed "a legislative function that the Constitution has never conferred upon the court."
In 1968, he proposed a constitutional amendment that would have required Supreme Court justices to be reconfirmed by the Senate every 10 years and established a mandatory retirement age for the justices.
Mr. Abbitt also spoke out against forced busing as a means to achieve racial balance in schools.
Mr. Abbitt's stands played well at home in the largely poor and rural district dominated by tobacco and peanut farming.
The district was geographically the largest in Virginia.
In a 1973 interview, Mr. Abbitt said his biggest accomplishment in Congress had been looking after the interests of the farmers in his district.
Before going to Congress, Mr. Abbitt served for 16 years as commonwealth's attorney for Appomattox County and was a member of the 1945 state constitutional convention.
In 1944, he was a Democratic elector from the district during the presidential election that gave Franklin D. Roosevelt his fourth and final term in the White House.
He was born in Lynchburg and received a law degree from the University of Richmond.
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