It has been many years now -- too many years, actually -- since I read Ralph Ellison's book, "Invisible Man." I remember little of it -- something about a black college in the South and then something about coming north to New York and then something about the discovery of black nationalism. The one thing I remember, though, is the feel and the temper of the book and the meaning of the title -- blacks are often invisible.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by all the hoopla accompanying the announcement that Sen. Harry Flood Bryd Jr., a man who stood for little except a closed public pocketbook, is retiring from the Senate. From the newspapers and the television stations, from his fellow politicians and from public figures everywhere have come testaments to his wisdom, his integrity, his sagacity. You would think that they were talking of Thomas Jefferson himself.
In fact, they were talking about a man whose entire political career virtually ignored the major political issues of our time. I say "virtually" because, along with his father, the former senator, governor and capo di tutti capi of all of Virginia, Byrd did have some strong feelings about blacks. He was against them. The Byrds thought they should not vote, should not go to school with whites, should not eat in the same restaurants, drink at the same water fountains or sit at the front of the bus where the view was presumably better.
This, and a policy of fiscal restraint, is what characterized the Byrd machine, which controlled Virginia for half a century. Under it, Virginia led the way in fighting the 1954 school desegregation decision. The senior Byrd orchestrated (massive) resistance in the United States Senate while his son, then in the Virginia State Senate, made sure things stayed segregated down home. He and Mills E. Godwin, later governor of Virginia, were instrumental in shutting down schools throughout the state. As a result, lots of black kids did not go to school and lots of people, black and white, suffered.
It would be unfair to say that Harry Byrd Jr. and Harry Byrd Sr. were one and the same person. The son is a different man and he should not be blamed for his father's sins. But there is no need to do that. He had sins aplenty of his own. He was one of his father's chief political lieutenants in Virginia, and when he got to the U.S. Senate he continued to vote much like his old man. He was, for instance, friendly toward the white and racist government of Rhodesia and fought with Jimmy Carter about, of all things, judicial appointments. Carter wanted a black judge. Byrd did not.
The civil rights era was some time ago, of course, and people did things back then that they would not do now. Lots of politicians thought they had no choice but to support Jim Crow, fearing that the slightest suggestion of enlightenment on race would mean defeat at the polls. But Byrd and the Byrds were not followers, they were leaders, and a person has to account for what he has done anyway. The measure of greatness has never been to meekly go along -- either with your father or with the mood of the times.
At the moment, though, Byrd is being toasted for his fiscal conservatism which is now in vogue, as much as for his durability as a powerful political leader. Hardly anywhere, though, is mention made of the victims of this fiscal restraint -- the poor and the unfortunate of Virginia -- or the racism upon which the political power was based and which enabled it to endure. In fact, the general celebration of Byrd and his father is wholly an expression of white sentiment. A black person who was deprived of his schooling because Harry Byrd Jr. closed his school is not about to tell you that a great man is passing from the American political scene.
No matter. Harry Flood Bryd Jr. is leaving -- esteemed, revered and respected. Newspapers sing his praises and his colleagues toast him for the man he never was. He goes with honors, saluted by those who excuse what he did because he never did it to them. As for the others -- the black and the poor -- they remain, as Ellison once wrote, as invisible as ever.