Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

The growth of Byrd's political regime in Virginia

Senator Harry F. Byrd's tactics increased his political supporters through the use of voter fraud and disenfranchisement of blacks. Dabney, on the other hand, explains his support of state rather than federal action in eliminating the poll tax.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginius Dabney, June 10-13, 1975. Interview A-0311-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, we might move next into some sort of miscellaneous issues and events and controversies in the '30s and '40s. You have mentioned several times a very important one and that is the poll tax question and I wondered if you would comment in general on what your position was and then we might move from that into some more specific questions.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, of course the poll tax had to be paid for three years and you had to pay it six months before the election There wasn't any doubt at all that it was designed to keep many citizens from voting. The Byrd organization would see that enough of its people were paid up, and they could be pretty sure that a large percentage of the others would forget all about it until it was too late. Those who got excited three months before an election were too late. That happened in thousands and thousands of cases.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, there was an element of corruption then, as well as an attempt to limit the franchise. Corruption being that people would buy up past fees and that . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
The county treasurers would stimulate their followers to pay up or would see in one way or another that they were qualified. Some of them would pay the tax for the voters and then collect later, or there would be a regular slush fund to pay the poll tax. And the absent mail ballots, which you haven't mentioned, created another issue, fraudulent mail ballots where thousands of people in one county in southwest Virginia would be voted by mail. Somebody would go around with a little black bag or a little black satchel full of absent voter ballots and he would get people to sign them and he would take them to the polls.
DANIEL JORDAN:
As I understand it, the poll tax became involved in a celebrated murder trial of a person by the name of Odell Waller, who was a black sharecropper and it had to do with the nature of the selection of the jury. You editorialized on that, and I wish that you would sort of comment on what the issues were that were involved.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, the sharecropper murdered his landlord, as I recall it, a white man with whom he had some kind of business dealings. A group concluded that juries in Virginia were improperly chosen because they had to be qualified voters. That meant that all of Odell Waller's category of sharecroppers and poor people generally were eliminated from juries, and therefore the juries tended to be anti-anybody like Odell Waller. I was one of a group which came out publicly urging that Waller be given a life sentence instead of electrocuted. I think maybe I caught more flak on that than on anything that I ever did. People thought I had really gone off my rocker for trying to do something for somebody who obviously killed his landlord and they couldn't see what the poll tax had to do with it. I pointed out that the United States government couldn't impose any penalty higher than life imprisonment, and all that we were asking was that Waller be given the penalty that he would have gotten from the U.S. or in half the states of the Union maybe, for the same crime. There was a real row about it.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You know, the interesting thing about this is that it is an early example of concern about the nature of a jury and the effect that it has on trials. Of course, a lot of modern day controversy is over that same question. In this same sort of vein about the poll tax, did you have any feelings about federal actions on the poll tax? Of course, there were many proposals and we now have an amendment to the Constitution.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
One of the arguments that we regularly made for getting rid of it in Virginia was that they would pass a federal law abolishing it if we didn't do it ourselves by state action. The Byrd organization was in firm control, partly due to the poll tax, and they didn't have any idea of going along with that.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, what was your stand on the federal legislation? I believe that legislation was proposed in the '30s to abolish the poll tax by the action of the federal government.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I've completely forgotten about that. I don't remember. I think I probably said that we ought to do it ourselves.
DANIEL JORDAN:
And then closely related to the poll tax would be your participation in the Southern Electoral Reform League, which I gather was concerned about issues like the poll tax.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, I've forgotten all about that organization.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Let's see, in 1941, it was created, the Southern Electoral Reform League.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Did it ever get anywhere or do anything?
DANIEL JORDAN:
I was hoping that you would tell us that. (laughter)
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I don't think I can remember. There was one thing during that period that you may not be aware of, or you may be getting to it. This was the federal anti-lynching law.
DANIEL JORDAN:
That's the next subject. If you want to go ahead and comment on that . . . Virginia had a strong anti-lynching law, I believe, passed in Governor Byrd's years, but there was proposal for federal action.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
We at the Times-Dispatch were really in the lead on that. And we got a lot of other papers in the South to support it too.
DANIEL JORDAN:
And you favored federal action in this instance?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Yes, because while Virginia had a good record, lynchings kept on happening in other states and I just thought that it was time to put a stop to it. I wrote an article for The Nation on it, and although many other southern papers came out in favor of it, the bill never was passed until a much later date.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, this brings forth a larger question and that is, when did you think it was proper for the federal government to act as opposed to the state government? In the lynching case here, you felt that federal action was needed, but in some other instances, I believe that you would favor state action.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, I just thought that it was better for the state to do it if they would and could. But if we couldn't get them to do it, I thought that maybe it was better in some cases for the federal government to act. On the poll tax, maybe it's not logical, but I didn't favor federal abolition of the poll tax because knew how violently the powers in Virginia would feel about the federal government imposing repeal on them. In the case of lynching, they weren't having any lynchings, so they weren't so excited about that. But in the case of the poll tax, it was something that they could do if they wanted to but wouldn't. We kept thinking that maybe we could get it done. We got fairly close once or twice. I think one house passed it at one point.