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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 Byrd organization's total control over Virginia's political system

Byrd restricted the franchise through the use of a poll tax to limit the number of social programs in Virginia, and he kept his officials in line by controlling their salaries. Consequently, Byrd controlled all aspects of the state's political system.

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:
You mentioned the poll tax and that does get us into the fact that the organization did operate in the context of a restrictive electorate and not a lot of people voted and the poll tax, I'm sure, is a factor. Could you comment on that a little further?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, from the time of the 1901-02 constitutional convention, the poll tax was in effect. You had to pay three years in a row and six months before the election in which you wanted to take part. It immediately eliminated most of the black vote. It also eliminated a great many white voters. Many white voters in time came to make arrangements with the county treasurers, particularly in the southwest, to get their taxes paid up in one way or another, either to have it paid by the guy who was running for office, or some other way. The average citizen would forget about an election until a few months before or maybe a few weeks before and he might not have paid his poll tax. The organization people got busy well ahead of time and kept their boys and girls paid up.
DANIEL JORDAN:
There were other devices too, I believe, in the 1902 constitution for restricting the franchise. Did Byrd ever acknowledge any awareness of the fact that this small electorate was a factor in his success?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
No, I don't think he did so in so many words. It was just implicit in all of his actions and utterances that he didn't believe that the great mass of the people knew enough about affairs to vote the right way, that is, his way. He was afraid that if he let these hundreds of thousands of people vote, they would immediately start raiding the treasury and asking for handouts and all kinds of things that he opposed.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Wasn't this the publicly expressed view of Senator Martin and sort of a model of success for Byrd when he was growing up and Senator Martin was the leader of the organization? Didn't Martin express something along this line during the . . .
DANIEL JORDAN:
I believe that Glass, too, was a member of the convention and was . . .
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Senator Glass very vigorously. I don't remember any specific quote from Martin, but I don't doubt that he felt that way. Martin was bitter against Woodrow Wilson because he moved in on the bosses in New Jersey. They had a violent altercation at the dinner table of President Alderman of the University of Virginia. So much so that President Alderman had to try to change the subject and get them to talk about something else. They were almost throwing things across the table.
DANIEL JORDAN:
I am struck in looking at the organization by the variety of ways in which politics and government seem to merge, and what it means is that the organization can influence offices from the lowest level all the way through. It seems to me that there were several ways that was done, and I would like to sort of explore some of those. One might be the State Compensation Board. Could you comment on what that was. I think it was considered a reform but it still gave some leverage to the organization.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, that was supposed to be a good way to control the salaries of the local officials all over the state. It was a board of three officials appointed by the governor. That was in theory, I suppose a good way to do this and actually, it was subject to all kinds of abuses if you got the wrong people in control of that board. As a matter of fact, many efforts were made to discover abuses and as far as I know, practically nothing was ever discovered, but it was a "gun behind the door" with three Byrd organization men on that board who could use it, if they wanted to, against somebody who got out of line when the chips were down on some issue. If a county officer didn't vote for the Byrd candidate for something and he was up for a salary increase, this board had a perfectly good way of just denying him the increase and pretending that it was for some other reason. I know that Jack Kilpatrick made a tremendous effort to try to find out whether the board's power had been abused and he couldn't find anything. He looked over vast numbers of records.