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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 machine died because of the civil rights movement's gains

Dabney weighs the advantages and disadvantages of the Byrd organization. He argues that the civil rights movement's gains undid much of the political machine because it increased the electorate.

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.

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DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, I wonder then if you will give us an assessment of the positive aspects of it and then the negative aspects and then perhaps, the lasting impact of it.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, on the positive side, I think that the honesty of the operation was the best thing that you could say. They did have people in positions of authority who were not putting their hands in the till. It really is astonishing to me that as long as I have been around here in Richmond, over fifty years, there has been almost no dishonesty in the state government. One man who was clerk of the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals embezzled and went to jail. He is the only state official in all that time who has been convicted on any such charge, and it has been extremely rare in that whole half century for such a charge even to be made. It is almost incredible. I have never heard of anybody being offered a bribe, either as a state official or as a member of the legislature. They haven't even been offered a bribe, much less taken one. I think I would have heard of some instances of that sort, if there had been any. Now, at times when the legislature is in session, of course, there is a lot of entertainment. Diners are given for the legislators by various educational institutions and by the truckers and by maybe the hotel people—those who are interested in staying on the right side of the legislators. But that is sort of a mild way of trying to influence anybody, and it is hard to believe that anybody is going to be bought by a dinner at the John Marshall Hotel, which is about all it amounts to. What was the second part, now?
DANIEL JORDAN:
Well, the positive aspects of it and then the negative.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Obviously, this operation was a tightly controlled one, and a lot of people who could have made a contribution and could have served advantageously in public positions, in the state government or legislature, were frozen out. They might have done a better job than those who in. It was a minority operation, with an astoundingly small vote in statewide elections during that whole period. Governors would be elected by something like 11 or 12% of the electors, or even fewer. That just isn't good. The level of government, within limits, was good. Not enough money was spent on schools or welfare, but the money was honestly spent. I don't think the black schools got their share at all, or the publicly supported colleges. They were given a small part of the budget, and just told that that was all they could have. The funds were not fairly apportioned. The result was that by the 1950s, Virginia was practically at the bottom of the list among all the states in expenditures for education, welfare, health and similar things. It was really indefensible and it was all because the organization and its leader, Harry Byrd, didn't believe in spending money for these things, in the way that other states were spending. He felt that people could get along with less than most states were giving them, partly because of his own upbringing. When you look at the ranking of Virginia in those various categories, you were really made ashamed. The turn-around was due more than anything else, to Mills Godwin, who came in at the time when we were almost at the bottom of everything He got the sales tax through and the amendments to the constitution, so that money could be spent in enormous quantities to bring Virginia up to where the state ought to be.
DANIEL JORDAN:
Do you want to assess the impact of the organization today, in 1975, say in the structure of government? Are there still structural remanents of the organization, in the General Assembly, for example.
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, there is quite a lot, the short ballot is still with us and I think that it ought to be. As I understand it, that is regarded as the preferred governmental structure, with the governor held responsible. Of course, if you get a dictatorial type in there, like Huey Long, who could control the electorate, and make all those appointments, you are really in trouble. So, there is a certain amount of danger in that particular set-up. The Speaker's power has remained just as it always was, with the appointment of all House committees. The lieutenant governor has been somewhat shorn of his powers; they relieved him of some of his authority in appointing committees. The general organization of the state government is about as it was, I don't think there has been any great change. It was surveyed by the Zimmer Committee about five years ago, which made a lot of recommendations. I haven't checked on what's been done, but I doubt, now that the dust has settled, that a great deal has changed.
DANIEL JORDAN:
How about philosophically? There is still a sort of conservative feeling that government should be run on economical bases and that state services are sort of secondary considerations. Do you think that that has changed?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I think it must have changed a good deal because the services are so much more adequate. Everybody has acquiesced in that; as soon as the constitution was amended, the referendum on the issuance of bonds was held and they were voted by the people. Mills Godwin and Linwood Holton both aided in the campaign. So, I think that the climate of opinion in respect to those matters is definitely much for the better.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Do you think that it is the climate of opinion or the larger electorate?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
It is a combination of both. The electorate has certainly had a big impact.
DANIEL JORDAN:
We might use that as sort of the final category and that is, what undermined the power organization after its joyous heyday.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Would you say that there is an organization now in Virginia and what undermining is there now?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
Well, I can think of two or three things. The Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" ruling, civil rights legislation, the federal law abolishing the poll tax, all that just knocked the props from under the machine. As far as the electorate goes, they can't control it anymore.
DANIEL JORDAN:
You have a more urban electorate, too, haven't you, with different needs?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
The urban areas are growing much more rapidly, people are moving into the urban centers, whereas in past years, the county courthouses controlled the situation. Now, it is about a fifty-fifty balance and becoming more and more urban.
WILLIAM H. TURPIN:
Is there any blame for this demise on Harry Byrd, Jr.? Do you think that his father could have kept the machine, or part of the machine, in operation when he could not have?
VIRGINIUS DABNEY:
I don't think Harry Byrd, Jr. is interested in controlling the state situation at all. Apparently, all he wants to do is be a Senator. He is not trying to run things in Virginia. I'm sure of that. If Harry Byrd, Sr. were still alive, just hypothetically, I don't think that he or anybody else could have gone very far in controlling the situation as it exists. The whole basis of his operation has been shot out from under him.