Robert Brink, a Democrat, represented Arlington in the Virginia House of Delegates for 17 years. He is a member of the Capitol Square Preservation Council. Margaret Edds, a retired journalist, is the author of “We Face the Dawn,” a biography of Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson.
On the grounds of Capitol Square in Richmond, a few hundred yards separate the statue honoring Harry F. Byrd Sr., erected in 1976, and the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, dedicated in 2008. These two monuments recognize pivotal players in Virginia’s struggle to achieve racial equality. But only one of them tells its story honestly.
Among the figures honored on the Civil Rights Memorial are Spottswood Robinson and Oliver Hill. These two Virginia lawyers were central members of the small legal team that in the 1940s and 1950s defied Southern and national norms by crafting courtroom strategies against segregated housing, transportation and education. Their lawsuit opposing Prince Edward County’s “separate but equal” public schools became one of the five cases that were combined into the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The nearby statue of Byrd — state senator, governor and U.S. senator for more than three decades — extols Byrd’s penny-pinching fiscal philosophy. He rose to prominence in the 1920s for his advocacy of “pay-as-you-go” state financing of road improvements. In Washington, he fought borrowing and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The statue shows him brandishing a copy of the federal budget.
Left unsaid is Byrd’s most consequential role: his four-decade reign over Virginia politics, from the courthouse to Congress, as head of the Byrd Organization. Through skillful application of undemocratic measures such as the poll tax and literacy tests, he kept the Virginia electorate small, compliant and overwhelmingly white. The organization exercised such pervasive power that in the 1940s the historian V.O. Key described Virginia as the state that “can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy.”
And, in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education, the organization, at Byrd’s personal direction, undertook a program of “massive resistance” — opposing efforts to desegregate Virginia’s schools by any means available. He preferred shuttering classrooms to integrating them.
Neither the Byrd Organization nor massive resistance is mentioned on Capitol Square. Instead, the plaque in front of the Byrd statue praises his devotion to “governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia.” Visitors aren’t told that the organization was willing to use the unrestrained power of government to deny an education to thousands of Virginia schoolchildren or that the organization tried to disbar and discredit Hill, Robinson and other avatars of equality. Such actions were the very antithesis of the use of government “in the best interest of all the people.”
Whether rooted in a cynical effort to bolster a faltering political machine, a sincere if misguided defense of states’ rights or a racist belief in white supremacy, massive resistance is a major element of Byrd’s legacy: indeed, it may be the most enduring element. His fiscal vision has long since been abandoned. Virginia many years ago dismissed pay-as-you-go as the primary means of addressing the capital needs of a modern state government. And at the federal level, his crabbed view of the national government’s role in caring for its citizens — he even opposed the adoption of Social Security — has faded further into irrelevance with each passing decade.
Down the hill from Byrd’s looming statue, new memorials pay tribute to two groups of Virginians who were ignored in Byrd’s time: women and Indian tribes. Along with the Civil Rights Memorial, they reflect a new, more inclusive, 21st-century Virginia. If Byrd’s story were presented honestly, his statue could become a vehicle for a fuller understanding of the forces that shaped Virginia in the middle of the last century.
The Capitol Square Preservation Council is undertaking an initiative to retool the square’s visitor experience. As part of this effort, the current Byrd plaque, with its misleading and incomplete narrative, should be removed and replaced with an interpretation that tells the true story of Harry F. Byrd. To do otherwise is an affront to the courageous struggle of Robinson, Hill and countless Virginians whose lives were scarred by massive resistance.