“It’s kind of like playing chess,” said Del. Wendell S. Walker (R-Lynchburg), who hoped the bill would make Democrats who just gained control of the House and Senate think twice about removing any statues. “You’re just calling somebody’s bluff.”
Turns out, some Democrats think Walker’s bill is a great idea. Byrd, a towering figure who modernized state government and observed strict budget discipline as governor from 1926 to 1930, was also the architect of Virginia’s policy of “massive resistance” to school desegregation in the 1950s and ’60s.
Now Walker wants to kill his own bill, fearing that Democrats may not only pass it but use it as justification for the removal of other monuments. Last week, Democrats moved to keep his legislation alive — at least for now.
The tug of war is playing out in the former capital of the Confederacy as the state’s long reckoning with its racial history shifts into high gear. Virginia and other Southern states were forced to wrestle with Confederate symbols in 2015, after a white shooter who had posed with Confederate flags killed nine members of a historically African American church in Charleston, S.C. But change in Virginia was limited.
As South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its statehouse, Virginia’s then-governor, Terry McAuliffe (D), stripped its image from a specialty license plate. Two years later, Virginia legislators who had faithfully funded upkeep of Confederate cemeteries coughed up funds for neglected, historic black burial grounds.
The college town of Charlottesville made plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a downtown park, which triggered a lawsuit and a deadly white-supremacist rally that only intensified calls to dethrone Confederate heroes.
Confederate names came off some schools and roads, but communities wanting to move statues of Lee and the like to cemeteries or museums were blocked by a state law prohibiting local authorities from moving war memorials.
This year could usher in sweeping changes, with Democrats in control of the General Assembly and Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who nearly resigned a year ago after a racist photo surfaced in his 1984 medical school yearbook, pledging to devote the rest of his governorship to promoting racial equity.
Northam supports legislation giving localities the right to relocate Confederate monuments and wants to find a replacement for the Lee statue that represents Virginia in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol.
That’s not to say all Democrats are on board with removing monuments, most notably in the state Senate, where the party has a slim 21-to-19 majority.
“I’m very uncomfortable with a lot of what’s going on,” said Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City), whose great-great-grandfather was Lee’s quartermaster. He pointed out that George Washington, whose statue looms over Capitol Square, owned hundreds of slaves.
“This is a far more interesting and complicated issue that people are [reducing to]: ‘Let’s tear down this statue. Let’s tear down that statue,’ ” he said.
Virginia has hundreds of Confederate monuments, including a statue of Lee inside the state Capitol and one of Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on the square. Newer monuments honor a more diverse set of Virginians, including women and Native Americans. On the corner opposite Byrd’s bronze likeness stands a memorial to the Virginia schoolgirl and other civil rights leaders involved in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled that “separate but equal” schools were unconstitutional.
Byrd, who died in 1966, engineered the state’s opposition to that ruling, which included denying funding to integrated schools, authorizing the governor to close them and providing tuition grants to students attending segregated private academies. In 1958, the state seized and closed several schools in Warren County, Charlottesville and Norfolk to prevent their integration. Prince Edward County shuttered its schools for five years rather than admit black students.
Byrd, a Winchester newspaper publisher and apple grower, is nevertheless lauded by some for creating the state’s highway system and adhering to “pay as you go” budgeting as governor. He was a prominent budget hawk in the U.S. Senate from 1933 to 1965.
His statue, created by sculptor William McVey and erected in 1976 with private funds, portrays Byrd holding a copy of the federal budget.
“The sum total of this one life has had a larger and more lasting effect upon the history and destiny of Virginia and her people than any other in the Twentieth Century,” a plaque accompanying the statue reads. It praises Byrd’s “personal integrity” and “devotion . . . to governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia.”
A member of the Capitol Square Preservation Council argued in a Washington Post op-ed last year that the plaque’s “misleading and incomplete narrative” needs to be replaced with one that tells the “true story.” Others would like to go further.
“I would love to see that statue come down,” said Del. Jerrauld C. “Jay” Jones (D-Norfolk), whose father was greeted by racist taunts when he integrated Norfolk’s Ingleside Elementary School as a 6-year-old in 1960. “It’s the statue that makes me most upset. . . . You think about being the mastermind of racist policy and segregationist policy in the 20th century. We’re not that far removed.”
Byrd biographer Ronald L. Heinemann supported taking Byrd’s name off a suburban Richmond middle school a few years ago, but he considers the statue on Capitol Square a tougher call.
“Clearly, Byrd’s promotion of massive resistance was regrettable . . . a horrible legacy,” said Heinemann, author of the book “Harry Byrd of Virginia.” “On the other hand, Byrd was the controlling power in Virginia politics for 40 years, serving as governor and United States senator.”
Harry F. Byrd III, one of the late governor’s grandchildren, did not respond to messages left at his home in Berryville, Va.
In the elder Byrd’s complex history and Democratic affiliation, Walker saw an opportunity to make Democrats pause on monument removal, something he sees as shortsighted. After filing the bill, Walker got an earful from a few Republican friends who admire Byrd’s fiscal conservatism. Then came kudos from Democratic constituents back home.
“Mr. Walker, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard you say,” he said one wrote him.
When Democrats in the legislature started asking whether they could sign on to the bill as co-sponsors, Walker grew even more wary.
“I didn’t want the thing to go any further,” he said in an interview Thursday evening. “It’s just going to open the door for a lot more [statue removals]. And I hate to be part of something that would be destroying our history and our heritage.”
He had already told the office of House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) he wanted to kill his bill.
“This was completed,” Filler-Corn’s aide wrote to a Walker aide Friday morning, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by both offices.
But when the House Rules Committee took up Walker’s request in a meeting Friday afternoon, Democrats said they wanted to hear his reason for striking the bill before approving the move with a formal vote.
Walker, already on the road to Lynchburg for the weekend, was not there to answer. So, over the objections of Republicans, the committee — which has 13 Democrats and five Republicans — took no action.
The committee could ultimately decide to send Walker’s bill to the floor for a vote despite the sponsor’s wishes, an unusual tactic but one Republicans sometimes used when they were in control.
After deciding to keep Walker’s legislation alive, the committee struck two other bills at the request of their sponsors, no questions asked.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to an op-ed written by two members of the Capitol Square Preservation Council that appeared in the Roanoke Times. The op-ed was written by one member of the council and a retired journalist, and it appeared in The Washington Post before the Times. This post has been updated.