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The Byrd Organization (usually known as just “the Organization”) was a political machine led by former Governor and U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr. (1887–1966) that dominated Virginia politics for much of the middle portion of the 20th century. From the mid-1920s until the late 1960s, the Byrd Organization effectively controlled the politics of the state through a network of courthouse cliques of local constitutional officers in most of the state’s counties.
“The Organization” had its greatest strength in rural areas. It was never able to gain a significant foothold in the growing urban areas of Virginia’s many independent cities, which are not located within counties, nor with the emerging suburban middle-class of Virginians after World War II. Byrd’s vehement opposition to racial integration of the state’s public schools including a policy of massive resistance which ultimately failed in 1960 after rulings it was unconstitutional by both state and federal courts could be described as its “last stand,” although the remnants of the Organization continued to wield power for a few years longer.
When the Senator resigned in 1965, he was replaced by his son Harry F. Byrd, Jr. in the U.S. Senate. However, the heyday of the Byrd Organization was clearly in the past, ending 80 years of domination of Virginia politics by conservative Democrats with the election of a Republican governor in 1969 for the first time in the 20th century.
|History of Virginia|
After the American Civil War, Virginia’s politics were chaotic. Initially, former Confederates were not allowed to vote, and factions of newly enfranchised black voters joined the electorate. In the late 1870s, a coalition of blacks, Republicans, and populist Democrats formed the Readjuster Party. Readjusters aspired “to break the power of wealth and established privilege” and to promote public education. It was led by Harrison H. Riddleberger (1844–1890) of Woodstock, an attorney, and William Mahone (1827–1895), of Petersburg, a former Confederate general who was president of several railroads.
The Readjuster Party’s power was overturned in the late 1880s, when John S. Barbour, Jr. (1820–1892) led the first Conservative Democrat political machine in Virginia, known as the “Martin Organization”, aided by a poll tax enacted in 1902 that effectively disenfranchised blacks and poor whites. U.S. Senator Thomas Staples Martin (1847–1919) took over after Barbour died, but Senator Martin’s political control was thin by the time he died in office in 1919. By this time, as a young state senator from Winchester, Harry F. Byrd, was a rising star in state politics and the Democratic Party. He had served the Wilson Administration during World War I helping with gasoline rationing as a volunteer.
In 1922, with seven years of experience in the Virginia State Senate, Byrd gained statewide prominence by confronting Virginia’s powerful lobby of highway builders. Byrd had gained a lot of related experience when earlier managing the Valley Turnpike. In the Virginia General Assembly, he led a fight against using bonded indebtedness as a method to pay for new roads. He feared the state would sacrifice future flexibility by committing too many resources to paying off construction debt.
In 1923, Byrd was sued for libel by the Virginia Highway Contractors Association because he said their activities “by combination and agreements may be very detrimental” to the State. The court dismissed the suit, stating the criticism was legal, imposing all costs upon the association. The publicity figuratively paved the way for the election of Harry Byrd to statewide office and the creation of the Byrd Organization.
The broad lines of what would become the Byrd Organization formed in 1925, when Byrd ran for governor. He served until 1930, then was elected to the United States Senate in 1933, serving until his retirement in 1965.
Over forty years, Byrd built up relationships with the “courthouse cliques,” consisting of the constitutional officers in every county. The five (elected) constitutional officers in each county were the sheriff, Commonwealth’s attorney, clerk of the court, county treasurer, and commissioner of revenue.
Perhaps contrary to first appearances, the low public profile “clerk of the court” position held the greatest power in most counties within the Byrd Organization. These courthouse cliques made recommendations for suitable candidates, and Byrd only decided on candidates after careful consultation. Without Byrd’s “nod,” no candidate had a chance at statewide office in Virginia.
One of Byrd’s first acts upon taking office was to amend the state constitution to reduce the number of statewide elected offices to just three: governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, and to redistrict the legislature every decade – a demand made without any details of apportionment. This move not only centralized power in the governor’s hands but also eliminated potential bases for opposition. Several measures that had been in place well before Byrd’s time also ensured his dominance, especially the poll tax which made the electorate the smallest relative to population in the postbellum United States. The courthouse cliques of the Byrd machine strove to ensure that “reliable” voters’ poll taxes were paid on time, often as early as three years before an election. The General Assembly, through circuit court judges, controlled the electoral commissions that ruled on voter eligibility. While the Organization never was able to establish a foothold in urban areas, blatant and deliberate malapportionment in favor of rural Southern Virginia and against the strongly Republican southwestern mountains as well as the cities ensured statewide dominance.
Byrd’s fiscal policy was principled conservativism, restructuring state government to streamline operations and use tax dollars more effectively. He made property taxes solely a county and city responsibility. He also had a keen interest in improving roads, dramatically increasing funding for secondary roads. When that was not enough, he pushed through the Byrd Road Act of 1932, a law that created the state’s Virginia Secondary Roads System and gave the state responsibility for maintaining county roads, but didn’t include similar assistance for Virginia’s independent cities.
Byrd’s primary support was among rural voters in his native Shenandoah Valley and Southside Virginia regions, who had less interest in improved state services (other than roads) than in low taxes and limited government. Byrd initiated a “pay as you go” approach to spending, in which no state money was spent until enough taxes and fees were available. While this freed Virginia from having to pay off-road construction debt and kept the state as one of the few to remain solvent during the early years of the Great Depression, it also kept support for higher education and other state services at low levels. Byrd, who never graduated from high school himself, recognized that his rural constituency was less interested in state-supplied services than in lower taxes. Rural areas were heavily overrepresented in the General Assembly, ensuring that support for education and social welfare remained very low for decades.
George Mason University professor William Grymes has noted that “Byrd’s political power was based on the ability of the appointed and elected officials to restrict the number of voters, and ensure those few voters were supporters of the Byrd Organization.” The courthouse cliques’ measures to restrict the number of voters made it possible for Byrd-supported candidates to win with as little as fifteen percent of the potential electorate actually being able to vote.
Opposing federal laws
With this structure in place, Byrd’s Organization practically selected every governor from 1930 until 1970, even as Virginia became friendlier to Republicans. Many Virginia Democrats began drifting away from the national party due to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s support for organized labor during the New Deal. This only accelerated during the Civil Rights Movement, when Byrd drafted the Southern Manifesto in opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Consequently, many Byrd Democrats began supporting Republicans in national elections as early as the 1930s, well before ticket-splitting became a trend across the South in the 1960s. This trend was especially pronounced in Byrd’s home region of the Shenandoah Valley. For instance, Highland and Shenandoah Counties have never supported a Democrat for President since 1932, Page County never since 1936, while Augusta and Roanoke Counties last supported a Democratic nominee during the 1944 election.
Some Byrd Democrats, such as Governors John S. Battle and Thomas B. Stanley, were willing to take cautious steps toward racial integration. However, their efforts were short-circuited in 1956, when Byrd decreed a policy of “massive resistance” to integrating the state’s public schools. He was joined by Virginia’s other Senator, A. Willis Robertson, and most other members of the organization. Byrd had a powerful ally in the United States House of Representatives, where the chairman of the House Rules Committee, Howard W. Smith, kept many civil rights bills from even coming to a vote on the floor. In time, Governor Stanley joined with Byrd to draft and pass a series of laws, known as the Stanley plan, to implement the “massive resistance” program.
State and federal courts struck down most of the “massive resistance” laws in 1960. In response, Stanley’s successor as governor, James Lindsay Almond, Jr., drafted several laws that implemented an extremely gradual desegregation process, popularly known as “passive resistance.” However, the Supreme Court held that this didn't go far enough in 1968. Even before then, the failure of “massive resistance” caused some of its leaders to conclude that obstinate resistance to integration could not go on forever. Some of them, such as Governors Albertis S. Harrison and Mills Godwin, began to moderate their views and even make some efforts to reach out to black voters. However, Byrd, Robertson, Smith and a few others continued to oppose any form of integration.
Harry F. Byrd Sr. retired from the U.S. Senate in 1965, and his eldest son, Harry, Jr., a State Senator, was appointed to succeed him.
Harry, Sr. died in 1966. A short time before his death, the Byrd Organization showed its first cracks when two of Harry, Sr.’s longtime allies were ousted in the Democratic primary by more liberal challengers. Senator Robertson was defeated by State Senator William B. Spong, Jr., whom President Lyndon Johnson had personally recruited. Also, Congressman Smith was defeated by State Delegate George Rawlings. While Spong went on to victory in November, Rawlings was defeated by conservative Republican William L. Scott, who gained the support of many conservative Democrats.
The Byrd Organization finally broke down in 1969, when a split in the Democratic Party allowed A. Linwood Holton Jr. to become the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. A year later, Republicans won six of the state’s ten congressional districts — the first time Republicans had held a majority of the state’s congressional delegation since Reconstruction. Ironically, one of the districts that turned Republican was the 7th District, the Byrds’ home district. Holton was succeeded in 1974 by Mills Godwin, a former Byrd Organization Democrat who had turned Republican. (Godwin had earlier served a term as governor, 1966-1970 as a Democrat, probably the last of the Byrd Organization members to hold the state’s top office.) Meanwhile, despite the end of the Organization, Harry Byrd, Jr. remained in the US Senate until his retirement in 1983.
- Glasrud, Bruce; Ely, James W. (May 1977). "The Crisis of Conservative Virginia: The Byrd Organization and the Politics of Massive Resistance (book review)". The Journal of Southern History. The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 43, No. 2. 43 (2): 324–325. doi:10.2307/2207385. JSTOR 2207385.
- Peaslee, Liliokanaio and Swartz, Nicholas J; Virginia Government: Institutions and Policy; p. 46 ISBN 1452205892
- Virginia Places; ‘The Byrd Organization’
- Hawkes Jr., Robert T.; The Emergence of a Leader: Harry Flood Byrd, Governor of Virginia, 1926-1930; The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 82, No. 3, ‘Harry Flood Byrd and the Democratic Organization in Virginia’ (July 1974), pp. 259-281
- Smith, J. Douglas; On Democracy’s Doorstep: The Inside Story of How the Supreme Court Brought “One Person, One Vote” to the United States; pp. 140-144 ISBN 0809074249
- Key, Valdmir Orlando; Southern Politics in State and Nation; p. 19 ISBN 087049435X
- Tarter, Brett; A Flier on the National Scene: Harry F. Byrd’s Favorite-Son Presidential Candidacy of 1932; The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 82, No. 3, ‘Harry Flood Byrd and the Democratic Organization in Virginia’ (July 1974), pp. 282-305
- Virginia Places; ‘From a “Museum of Democracy” to a Two-Party System in Virginia: the End of the Byrd Machine’
- The Political Graveyard; Highland County, Virginia
- The Political Graveyard; Shenandoah County, Virginia
- The Political Graveyard; Page County, Virginia
- The Political Graveyard; Augusta County, Virginia
- The Political Graveyard; Roanoke County, Virginia