In the 1960s, the American presidential elections mirrored a major shift in national principles that changed the face of U. S. politics forever. Although many consider the 1960s the “decade of revolution,” in some places, certain age-old political legacies doggedly persisted in new guises. One of these places was the South. In Virginia, a man named Harry Byrd helped establish and serve as the dominating face of conservative, segregationist politics in the decades leading up to the sixties. My podcast tells not only how Byrd’s legacy related to those presidential elections, but how it survived them as well.
The firsthand accounts I uncovered revealed the incredible extent of Byrd’s individual power in Virginia politics. He was the face of the conservative Democrats and their long legacy. Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter and editor Virginius Dabney spent a great deal of time elaborating on this in a five-hour interview in 1975, and the same year, a former Virginia governor named Colgate Dabney also described the power of Byrd’s charisma.
The 1960s Presidential elections marked a major split in the Democratic Party, and Harry F. Byrd — a lifelong southern Democrat — was part of this break in Virginia. A major factor in the break within the Democratic Party was the civil rights issue. Byrd’s policy of massive resistance in the face of federal desegregation measures turned out to be the deepest crack in the party’s foundation. Cartoonist Fred O. Seibel, a New York-born Republican-turned-Democrat who moved to Virginia in 1926 to produce editorial cartoons for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, visualized this tension in some of his work.
Although Kennedy failed to win Virginia in the election of 1960, he still managed to appeal to the Byrd faction with his choice of running mate, southerner Lyndon B. Johnson. Both men were aware of just how imperative Byrd’s support was to winning Virginia for the national Democratic Party. Fred O. Seibel cleverly visualized this situation in a 1960 cartoon titled “Byrd Watchers.” Seibel was a close personal friend of Harry Byrd, and this particular cartoon is made out to Byrd with Seibel’s best wishes. No matter what the political affiliation of the cartoonist was, there’s a great deal of truth in the analogy.
Kennedy’s assassination and Johnson’s subsequent wholehearted support of civil rights measures, however, drove a deeper wedge into the Democratic Party not only in Virginia, but across the nation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, the poll tax was overturned, and African Americans in urban VA locales turned out to vote in record numbers.
UVA professor Ralph Eisenberg’s 1965 article on the 1964 election demonstrated a marked increase in voters, particularly among black voters in VA’s urban areas.
Staggeringly, according to Eisenberg, the total number of participating voters across the nation increased by only three quarters of a million, while the total number in Virginia increased by a quarter of a million. “As Negroes constitute a growing portion of the State’s effective electorate,” said Eisenberg, “their support will become increasingly important for political success.”
But, as my podcast shows, Virginia ultimately went to Republican Richard Nixon in 1968 and voted Republican for exactly 40 more years. The number of voters increased even more in the following years (especially after the voting age was dropped to 18 in 1970), but a number of other factors prevented Eisenberg’s prediction from becoming a reality. Lyndon Johnson’s insistence on remaining militarily involved in Vietnam caused his popularity to plummet among a great deal of his supporters. The Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago was rocked by protests and violence. Escalating racial tension nationally and locally, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and
the subsequent urban race riots, fed the fatal split in the Democratic party. In Virginia in particular, suburban development due to white flight resulted in new centers of political clout which carried the state for Richard Nixon and the Republicans who came after him.
Historian and journalist Rick Perlstein, my informant on the national political scene of the 1960s, identified Vietnam and civil rights as the two major issues which caused this disruption. For half of the 1960s in Virginia, Harry Byrd held down the Democratic Party with the Jim Crow legacy of the South. Even when he retired from politics, his “people,” mostly set loose from the broken Democratic party that he once held together, gravitated to the side that essentially picked up the pieces.