by Jeff Thomas
Has any person in the twentieth century caused more pain to living Virginians than Harry Byrd? Yet while the statues to the disgraced traitors on Monument Avenue are carted off to their burials, Byrd’s remains on the grounds of the Virginia Capitol.
The racist generals fought the Civil War; Harry Byrd re-fought it. The generals lost 155 years ago; Harry Byrd won 55 years ago. The generals were not the architects of the system they supported; the Southern Manifesto and Massive Resistance were Byrd’s brainchildren. Harry Byrd was not a solider; he was a Governor and Senator who had more power and more responsibility for his actions. The generals were long gone when reactionaries fabricated their mythologies; when Byrd was dying of brain cancer, he said that he would back the segregationist Mills Godwin for Governor if Godwin would appoint his namesake son to his old Senate seat. The generals died and the Union Army ran their states; for forty years, Harry Byrd ran Virginia animated by hatred of Black people and the poor, enforced with dehumanizing poll taxes, literacy tests, and disinvestment in school facilities written in brick to this day.
Harry Byrd and Dr. King both understood the power of suffrage and education. Byrd’s life’s work was to stop Black people from voting and getting an education. Preventing children from learning to read and think is how dictators control the population; they understand that once people get an education, it cannot be taken away. It is hard to think of anything short of war that is more malicious or destructive to modern society.
How are Harry Byrd’s sins memorialized? Today a schoolchild walking by his Potemkin plaque at our people’s Capitol would read:
“The General Assembly of Virginia on March 9, 1974, authorized this memorial to Harry Flood Byrd, of Winchester, Virginia, declaring that ‘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; established personal integrity and fiscal responsibility as first principles of public life and public service, and exemplified the highest traditions established by the outstanding statesmen produced by this Commonwealth during its long history.’ This statue, financed entirely by private donations, was dedicated June 10, 1976, as a permanent memorial to Senator Byrd and in appreciation of his devotion throughout a long public career to governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia.”
This can only be characterized as a Stalinist level of propaganda.
In a “contextualization” gesture looking increasingly out of touch, this year’s state budget includes $50,000 “for the development of interpretive signs regarding the history of Massive Resistance to incorporate these signs beside the statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr.” (In the real world, the market price for what is essentially a bronze plaque on a headstone would be maybe $2,000; the extra 2,500% profit will surely go to a well-connected contractor.) What should “interpretive signs” say about crimes against humanity?
The General Assembly has admitted that the statue is not deserving of adulation; my supposition is some old guard white politicians are afraid of antagonizing the Byrd constituency, which no longer exists.
There are a number of ways to remove it. Delegate and Attorney General candidate Jay Jones said that he would put in a bill (as Delegate Walker did in 2020); that might take too long even in late August’s special session. Jones writes in an email:
“It is beyond me why the statue still stands and I was one of those pushing to shoot Del. Walker’s bill to the floor last session for an up or down vote. We still plan on putting the bill in at the first opportunity and look forward to it working its way through the process. There is no reason why the architect of Massive Resistance deserves to be idolized or memorialized in any way.”
The Capitol Square Preservation Council seems to do nothing substantive but is supposed to issue a report to the Governor “by December 1” of every year recommending what changes should be made to the grounds. There is no need under the law to wait until December to issue this report. Nor is there a need for a report: Governor Northam could just tell the same people who are removing the statues on Monument Avenue to cart Harry off the dump.
“In the twentieth century, Harry Byrd and his machine were most responsible for implementing the ‘separate but equal’ philosophy that harmed all Virginians,” said Doug Wilder’s campaign manager and Lieutenant Governor candidate Paul Goldman. He said he wrote and called the Commission this week to ask they take down Byrd’s statue but has not received any reply.
“Byrd’s philosophy still influences many things today, such as Article VIII, Section I of the Virginia Constitution – the Education Clause. We’ve spent decades trying to fix it, but not a single Democratic senator was willing to support an amendment to enshrine equal opportunity in the Virginia Constitution in 2020. It’s time to get Democrats on the right side of history.”
He is right. (The amendment is SJ75.) The Virginia Constitution’s Education Clause does not enshrine equal educational opportunity. Its “shall seek” language is aspirational and unenforceable, as it was intended and as the Virginia Supreme Court has affirmed.
Ensuring that all children have equal access to education is a basic human right and moral value. That’s what SJ75 would do, if it passes in the 2021 and 2022 Virginia General Assembly sessions (note that it was “passed by” until 2021 in this year’s session), then is ratified by the voters in November 2022. More concretely, it would give citizens the ability to use the courts to properly fund the living monuments to the Confederacy, Virginia’s public schools.
Meanwhile, Harry Byrd’s legacy remains and the monument sits at the main entrance to the Capitol grounds, in opposition to and in a more prominent position than the Civil Rights memorial. That memorial honors the visionaries who launched the Prince Edward County desegregation case that would become one of five folded into Brown v. Board. Virginia has many ideas and people who actually merit respect.
If Byrd’s statue continues to stand, then the citizens who tore down Jefferson Davis and other despots when politicians did nothing will put a well-deserved rope around Harry’s neck sooner rather than later. Good. Harry Byrd’s legacy and memorial are obscenities.
Jeff Thomas is the author of The Virginia Way: Democracy and Power after 2016.