The firing of City Manager William J. Leidinger by the black majority of the Richmond city council last week was a rare exercise of minority political muscle in Virginia.
Even after a few days of reflection, it seems hard to overstate either the real or symbolic significance of the event.
It is the first time that black Virginians have unequivocally seized control of one of the state's populous cities or counties. It is richly symbolic that they did so in a city that has been, over the centuries of the American political experience, a bastion of white political dominance.
The black majority of five on the nine-member council fired Leidinger because they viewed him as an obstacle to fulfillment of the mandate give them by their constituents in the electorate.
In the month since control of the council first passed to black officeholders in 1977, the white manager's firm grip on the city's executive branch, coupled with his close ties to the influential white business leadership, left the black council members with the feeling that they were not really in charge.
In the emotional, six-hour hearing that ended with Leidinger's dismissal, the manager's supporters made it clear that they regarded him, and not the council, as the element in city hall that sustained business support for the city government.
Blacks residents calling for his firing made in equally clear that his made dismissal was essential to an actual transfer of power from white to black politicans. A black clergyman exhorted the council majority to "send up a white smoke signal showing that the old order has passed."
The signal went up and the next day, Manuel Deese, Leidinger's black assistant for administration, assumed the chair he will fill as acting manager until a replacement is named.
Mayor Henry L. Marsh III quickly appointed an 11-member committee to recruit a new manager. It has a black majority of six and includes the leaders of the Richmond Urban League and the state NAACP. Past manager selection committees have been dominated by white corporation executives.
The importance of these events in Richmond can only be understood in a statewide context. Black Virginians account for almost 20 percent of the state population, but have been less successful than black minorities in other states in achieving political status.
Virginia trails other southern states in the number of black elected officials. There have been a few black mayors here and there, including Marsh, but none has had the power over a big city needed to achieve the political stature of a Tom Bradley, Maynard Jackson or Richard Hatcher.
The 40-member state Senate has only one black senator and the 100-member House only four black delegates, three of them serving their first terms. Election of more black legislators has been thwarted by the Democratic majority's insistence on multi-member election districts for the House, a device that dilutes the black vote.
The black failure in elective politics has been accompanied, and partly caused, by a failure among black Virginians to develop strong political organizations. Endorsements by the statewide Crusade for Voters and regional black organizations are courted but seldom counted as decisive. The voter turnout efforts by these groups have been diluted, some even say tainted, by their reliance on the funds of white candidates rather than their own resources to finance their election activities.
Black Virginians conform to the national pattern by giving overwhelming support to Democratic candidates. But during the last 10 years Virginia Democrats have failed to elect a single governor or senator. This has contributed to the failure of black Virginia political workers to get prized state or federal appointments.
The result of all of this is a deep seated feeling of political deprivation among black Virginians that many believe has contributed to the apparent, steady decline of participation in statewide elections.
There is, of course, nothing in the political system that guarantees a quota of influence to a minority of less than 20 percent. However, percentages understate the importance of a minority of almost 1 million people, a population roughly equal to or greater than that of a dozen states, a million people who see themselves as having a distinct set of political interests that they believe are inadequately represented in either the state or federal government.
It was in this statewide context of black political impotence that the black officeholders of Richmond found themselves in command of a majority but not the city. Fairly or not, they viewed Ledinger as insufficiently committed to the school system, to neighborhood renewal projects and to the social programs that their constituents expected them to promote.
They held a majority on the policy making council, but they found themselves in the politically demeaning position of having to take the word of a strong, competent white manager for what was possible and what was not possible to achieve in the government of the city.
By firing Ledinger they incurred the wrath of the white business leadership - the Richmond Times-Dispatch branded them a "band of black Bibos" - but they put black Virginians for the first time in a position to explore for themselves the limits of political power in a modern urban center.