Political Button for 1965 Election

Robert Y. Button (1899–1977)

Robert Y. Button was Virginia's attorney general from 1962 to 1970. The Culpeper native was among the many small-town attorneys who contributed to the success of Harry F. Byrd Sr.'s Democratic political machine. Button served for fifteen years in the Senate of Virginia, where he backed the Byrd Organization's policies of Massive Resistance and fiscal conservatism. During his two terms as attorney general his office defended Virginia's racial segregation laws, legislative reapportionment, voter registration procedures, and the poll tax. Most notably, his assistants lost in the landmark cases Griffin et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County et al. (1964), which invalidated the practice of closing county schools and funding private segregated academies, and Loving v. Virginia (1967), which invalidated Virginia's law against interracial marriages. MORE...

 

Robert Young Button was born on November 2, 1899, in Culpeper County, the son of John Young Button, a traveling hardware salesman and farmer, and Margaret Agnes Duncan Button. After graduating in 1917 from Culpeper High School, where he excelled in debating, Button enrolled at the University of Virginia. There he spent five active years and joined the prestigious Raven Society and the Order of the Coif before receiving an LL.B. Button returned to Culpeper to practice law. On August 20, 1931, he married Kathleen Mary Antoinette Cheape, a nurse. They had one son and one daughter.

Following a career path familiar to many other young lawyers, Button took an active role in community affairs, joined a variety of organizations, invested in local businesses, and eventually got involved in politics, beginning with the 1933 election campaign. He sat on the Virginia Parole Board from 1942 to 1945 and on the State Board of Education from 1945 to 1960. Button was a trustee of the Jamestown Corporation during the 1950s and served on the Potomac River Commission in 1958. He was a member of the Virginia Advisory Legislative Council and as chair issued reports on such issues as Virginia's involuntary sterilization laws and the retention, storage, and disposal of state records.

In 1945 Button was elected to the Senate of Virginia from the district comprising Culpeper, Fauquier, and Loudoun counties. He was one of a considerable number of small-town attorneys who long accounted for much of the enduring success of the Democratic Party organization that looked to Senator Harry F. Byrd for leadership. Button found the Byrd Organization's conservative philosophy congenial and devoted his talents to its advancement. He received increasingly important legislative assignments, including appointments to the Committees on Finance, on General Laws, and on Privileges and Elections, and in 1956 he chaired the Committee on Welfare. During his fifteen years in the Senate, Button backed the organization's programs on matters ranging from fiscal conservatism to Massive Resistance. He served on the Commission on Public Education of 1954 (popularly known as the Gray Commission) and the Commission on Public Education of 1959 (popularly known as the Perrow Commission), both created to craft Virginia's response to the United States Supreme Court's ruling that public school segregation was unconstitutional.

In 1961 a group of party leaders persuaded a reluctant Button to run for attorney general on the ticket with Albertis Sydney Harrison for governor and Button's close friend Mills Edwin Godwin Jr. for lieutenant governor. Button and Godwin were both praised and condemned for their prominent support of Massive Resistance, while the more moderate Harrison escaped some of the bitterest criticism of the attempt to thwart court-ordered desegregation of the public schools. All three candidates received comfortable majorities on election day, and four years later Button was easily reelected.

Button's published annual reports document in detail his work and responsibilities during eight years as attorney general. His office defended Virginia's racial segregation laws, legislative reapportionment, voter registration procedures, and the poll tax. Following previous practice, private attorneys were sometimes engaged to handle the difficult litigation of complicated cases. Assistant attorneys general argued two of the most publicized cases that reached the United States Supreme Court during Button's tenure, Griffin et al. v. County School Board of Prince Edward County et al. (1964) and Loving v. Virginia (1967). In both instances the Supreme Court negated the arguments of Button's assistant. In the first case the Court struck down the school board's abolition of the county schools and diversion of tax money to support private segregated academies, and in the second the justices invalidated Virginia's law against interracial marriages.

Button knew that Virginia had little chance of winning some of those cases. Like other leading members of the Byrd Organization, he believed that he had to fight what they regarded as the liberal activism of the Supreme Court, whose decisions he condemned as unconstitutional usurpations of the powers of the legislature and of the states. Button often criticized the federal judiciary and charged that the Supreme Court was so concerned with the rights of individuals that it forgot that society also had rights. He blamed its decisions for increased crime and pornography.

Although some people regarded Button as dignified, distant, and blunt, others who knew him better or worked with him closely remembered his kindness, humor, integrity, and dedication. He did not seek a third term in 1969, and in 1970 he resumed his law practice in Culpeper. Button had suffered a heart attack in 1967. He recovered sufficiently to return to work, but his heart remained weak for the remainder of his life. Button died on September 1, 1977, after suffering a heart attack in Culpeper and was buried in Culpeper Masonic Cemetery.

Time Line

  • November 2, 1899 - Robert Y. Button is born in Culpeper County. He is the son of John Young Button and Margaret Agnes Duncan Button.
  • 1917 - Robert Y. Button graduates from Culpeper High School.
  • 1922 - Robert Y. Button graduates from the University of Virginia with an LLB Afterward he returns to Culpeper to pratice law.
  • August 20, 1931 - Robert Y. Button and Kathleen Mary Antoinette Cheape marry. They will have one son and one daughter.
  • 1945 - Robert Y. Button is elected to the Senate of Virginia from the district comprising Culpeper, Fauquier, and Loudoun counties.
  • 1961 - Albertis Sydney Harrison, Mills Edwin Godwin Jr., and Robert Y. Button run for governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general, respectively, on the state Democratic ticket. All three candidates are elected.
  • 1965 - Robert Y. Button is reelected attorney general of Virginia.
  • 1967 - Robert Y. Button suffers a heart attack; he recovers, but his heart remains weak.
  • 1969 - Robert Y. Button does not seek a third term as attorney general of Virginia, and the next year returns to his law practice in Culpeper.
  • September 1, 1977 - Robert Y. Button dies after suffering a heart attack in Culpeper. He is buried in Culpeper Masonic Cemetery.

References

Further Reading
Bugg, J. L. "Button, Robert Young." In the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, et al., 447–448. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2001.
Heinemann, Ronald L. Harry Byrd of Virginia. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996.
Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality, 2004 ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Lechner, Ira M. "Massive Resistance: Virginia's Great Leap Backward." Virginia Quarterly Review 74 (Autumn 1998): 631–40.
Lewis, George. Massive Resistance: The White Response to the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. 2nd ed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006.
Muse, Benjamin, Virginia's Massive Resistance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961.
Newbeck, Phyl. Virginia Hasn't Always Been for Lovers: Interracial Marriage Bans and the Case of Richard and Mildred Loving. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Wallenstein, Peter. Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law—An American History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Wilkinson, J. Harvie, III. Harry Byrd and the Changing Face of Virginia Politics, 1945–1966. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1968.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Bugg, J. L., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Robert Y. Button (1899–1977). (2015, November 2). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Button_Robert_Young_1899-1977.

  • MLA Citation:

    Bugg, J. L. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Robert Y. Button (1899–1977)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 2 Nov. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 29, 2013 | Last modified: November 2, 2015


Contributed by J. L. Bugg and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography