The missing link

“Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican.”

That is a true statement. But he wasn’t alone. A lot of blacks were Republicans, not a surprise considering it was President Abraham Lincoln who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the states of the Confederacy where Union forces were not in control, including areas in Tidewater.

But Lincoln’s edit did little to speed the arrival of universal liberty in tidewater Virginia. Since it exempted certain areas already under Union occupation, the proclamation permitted slavery to survive in several tidewater Virginia counties.17 As late as the summer of 1863, federal census takers counted nearly 5,000 blacks still held as slaves (presumably by loyal masters) in those counties.

17 The Tidewater counties were Elizabeth City (now Hampton), York, Norfolk, and Princess Anne plus Accomack and Northampton on the Eastern Shore.

Except for the brief period of Reconstruction, which ended with the Compromise of 1877, the states of the former Confederacy were run by Democrats.  Imposition of various methods, from poll taxes to physical intimidation, resulted in very few black voters. Despite the party identification chart above, it is estimated that by the 1940s, only about 5% of blacks were registered to vote.

From the mid-1920s here in Virginia, the Democratic Party was run by the machine of Harry Flood Byrd.

I’ve spent way too much time over the last few years reading about Byrd, primarily because of his continuing influence in our politics, despite his death in 1966. But in doing so, I’ve learned a lot about the evolution of the political parties in Virginia. And I’ve long searched for what I call the missing link.

You see, when columns like this one appear in the newspaper and elsewhere, I know they are not telling the whole story. Only if one stops at the mid 1960s and leaps forward to the early 1970s can you make the claim that today’s Republican and Democratic parties are the same as their predecessors.

Because they aren’t.

The two parties, at least in Virginia, literally swapped philosophies when it came to the issue of race. It was the Republicans in Virginia who argued against Massive Resistance while Democrats supported it. Implementation of Jim Crow laws and the passage of the 1902 Virginia constitution, which disenfranchised blacks and poor whites with the imposition of the poll tax, happened on the Democrats’ watch.

“Republican” was a dirty word in Virginia for a long, long time, at least among white Democrats.

Many point to President Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as having been the turning point – and perhaps for Democrats in other Southern states this is true. But I don’t know if that’s the case for Virginia.

We all know that Barack Obama was the first Democrat to win Virginia since 1964. Less known is that Lyndon Johnson’s win in 1964 was the first for Democrats since 1948. The coalition of Democrats that helped propel Johnson to victory in Virginia included blacks, who voted in a federal election without paying a poll tax for the first time since 1900. The very Democrats who had been proponents of the black codes courted the black vote!

I keep being drawn back to the gubernatorial election in 1965. Democrats won – and although the poll tax was still in effect, did so with the help of the black vote (see chart). Conservative Democrats, upset with Mills Godwin’s outreach to black voters,  had their own candidate – my friend’s dad, Bill Story.

According to reports at the time, Godwin garnered support from the rest of the Democrats – the conservatives that didn’t choose Story, moderates, and liberals – in addition to blacks. He promised to be a moderate governor.

The Republican candidate, Linwood Holton, finished in second place. I have to wonder if not for Story, would those votes have gone to Holton, because four years later, Holton won election to the governor’s mansion, becoming the first Republican governor of Virginia in 100 years. Another Conservative Party candidate was fielded that year, who garnered less than 2% of the vote. 1969* was the first state election in which the poll tax didn’t apply. Obviously, although I’ve found nothing substantive on it, the black vote was not enough to overcome the Democrats changing sides.

Holton is, of course, the father-in-law of former lieutenant governor, former governor and current Senatorial candidate Tim Kaine. Even before his endorsement of his son-in-law, Holton was not considered a “real” Republican. In 1973, the Republican Party fielded a “real” Republican for governor: former Democratic governor Mills Godwin.

Welcomed into the ranks of the Republican Party of Virginia were the Democrats, including Godwin, who were, for lack of a nicer term, racists. Ejected from their ranks were moderates like Holton who practiced what he preached – and put his children into public schools during the early years of busing.

Yes, the parties literally flipped their positions on the issue of race.

About the only reason I can think of as to why the Republicans let the racist Democrats into their party is that they just wanted to win. And if pandering to racists was the path – after all, Democrats had done it for years – then, by golly, why not? Winning is, after all, the most important thing.

I find such articles as the one that prompted this post disengenuous. We cannot – and will not – have a serious conversation about our history until we first acknowledge the whole truth.

* – I erred in my previous post. There were five candidates for governor in 1969.


A couple of links you might find interesting:

8 thoughts on “The missing link

  1. A few comments on the “swap.” The “swap” was bitterly opposed by the Mountain Republicans (the real Republicans) in the 60s and 70s. These were people who didn’t have a racist bone in their body and were shocked at some of the folks coming into the party….but you’ve got to remember….there were 3 factors. Nixon’s folks were leaning heavily on a lot of these “conservative” Dems to switch parties. The McGovern campaign made it clear that the national Democratic Party no longer wanted anything to do with “conservative” Southern Democrats. And the state GOP (Mountain Republicans) was small. It wasn’t that hard for these segregationists to come into the party and take it over, the numbers weren’t there to stop them.

    Marshall Coleman was the last of the old Mountain Republicans on the state stage unless you count Clint Miller and Steve Agee’s failed bids to get the GOP nods for Gov. and AG in 1993.

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