Someone who has been with me since my birth was dealt a mortal blow last week. He is an ominous fellow who had a lot of power at one time, enough power to keep me -- and others like me -- from deciding at various stages of my life where I could be born, live, eat, go to the bathroom, go to school, work and be buried. He controlled not only these tangible things in my life, but also the intangibles that caused the most pain. And he did this not only in Virginia, but in much of the South. This person has been in a weakened state for a while, although some have tried to revive him. But he was absent last Tuesday. His name is Jim Crow.
While the votes were coming in and history was being made with the election of Democrat Gerald Baliles for governor, proudly leading a ticket of Lawrence Douglas Wilder, a black man for lieutenant governor, and Mary Sue Terry, a white woman for attorney general, I kept saying to myself over and over: I don't believe this is happening in my lifetime.
It is a lifetime that rings with the sound of my grandmother's voice telling me her mother was free issue; with my parents talking zealously about paying the annual poll tax so they would be eligible to regiser and vote in all elections; and always with an undercurrent of discussion of where we could and could not go in my home town of Richmond -- a home town that some like to call, even in 1985, the capital of the Confederacy.
The smell of baked beans and hot dogs always brings back sharp memories. That was the Saturday dinner menu when I was growing up in the '50s, since Mother spent many a Saturday picketing Thalhimer's department store to get it to integrate its restaurant.
As long as I live, I will never forget the signs that said "colored only" over the watefountains and on the bathroom doors. I will never forget the segregated buses and movie theaters, and I will never forget what it was like to be a journalist in the state capital in the early '70s -- a good job that was made better by the presence and performance of Douglas Wilder.
Watching him in the Senate was a tremendous motivation for me. From the beginning of his political career he had the ability to transcend race. His oratorical skills were extraordinary. If he was ever intimidated by the legislative process, he never let on, as he maneuvered his way up the legislative ladder and relished old fashioned horse-trading on votes.
I remember sitting in his office one evening over a decade ago and seeing the look on his face when he opened an envelope with a sizable check in it and a note encouraging him to run for lieutenant governor. I asked him about his future, thinking I had a scoop. He calmly said, "I will one day . . . when the time is right."
My generation of Virginians is grateful Wilder judged the timing correctly. We are a generation born into a segregated society. We witnessed the struggle for integration and can now reap the rewards of a freer society made possible by the risks taken by people such as Wilder. His election, which makes him the first black elected statewide in the South since Reconstruction, bodes well for other well-prepared black candidates throughout the nation.
Gerald Baliles and Mary Sue Terry are examples of what old-fashioned hard work, planning and determination will do. They are also examples of the kind of politicians Democrats statewide and nationally need to field.
The groundwork for this historical Democratic sweep of the executive branch was laid by Gov. Charles S. Robb. During his four-year administration he expanded opportunities and broke racial barriers without losing the support of the broader white community. He was able to include blacks and women in the governing process without leaving himself open to criticism that he was pandering to or being controlled by groups tagged as special interests. The Robb approach holds many lessons for Democrats at the national level as the party prepares for the 1986 and 1988 elections.
The Baliles-Wilder-Terry victory is the crowning legacy of the Robb administration. They all understand that elected officials are important symbols of a community's values. Virginia has spoken with a clear voice that Jim Crow can be laid to rest.