Origins of the Organization
The birth date of the Byrd Organization might be gauged at January 31, 1922, when Byrd, a Winchester businessman and state senator, was first elected chairman of the central committee of Virginia's Democratic Party. He raised money and directed the campaign to elect a Democrat to represent the Ninth Congressional District in southwestern Virginia, ending the Republican Party's domination of the only region of the state that the Democrats did not already effectively control. Later that year he led a successful campaign to defeat a referendum to finance construction of a modern state highway system through revenue bonds, committing the state to a low-cost "pay-as-you-go" philosophy.
Of course, it helped Byrd that Virginia's Democratic Party was already a formidable organization and had been since the 1880s, when Congressman (and later U.S. senator) John Strode Barbour (1820–1892), an attorney and former railroad president, led the Democrats to victory over Republicans and Readjusters. (The latter was a political coalition of conservative Democrats, Republicans, and African Americans that promoted debt-reduction and public schools.) Barbour and his successors in the U.S. Senate—railroad attorney Thomas Staples Martin (1847–1919) followed by former governor Claude Augustus Swanson (1862–1939)—effectively organized support and consolidated power around a few major issues. They were generally sympathetic toward business interests and advocated limited state government and state services, although Swanson was somewhat more progressive. They were unsympathetic toward African American civil rights and voting rights in general, however.
How the Organization Worked
In his classic 1949 study, Southern Politics in State and Nation, V. O. Key characterized the organization as an oligarchy in which power was maintained by a remarkably small portion of the electorate. Fewer people voted in Virginia than in any other southern state, with only 10 or 12 percent of adults casting votes during the heyday of the Byrd Organization. This meant that the organization needed the support of only 5 to 7 percent of the voting-age population to control party nominations, which nearly guaranteed election in most districts in most elections. "By contrast," Key memorably wrote, "Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy."
Calling themselves an organization rather than a faction or a machine, the party's leaders portrayed themselves as like-minded men united for conservative good government. Men who supported the organization's leaders and demonstrated talent could move up through the ranks into the General Assembly or a seat in Congress, or become governor or U.S. senator. Byrd himself often indicated which aspiring candidates for top offices had his approval, a process that the press called the "nod." A core of disappointed Democrats as well as politicians committed to reform agendas or otherwise less committed to Byrd-style conservatism formed a persistent anti-Byrd opposition know as the "antis."
James Hubert Price in 1937 was the only Democrat to win the party's gubernatorial nomination over Byrd's objection. Price had supported Byrd's administration as a member of the General Assembly and served two terms as lieutenant governor, and he loyally stood aside in 1933 to allow Byrd's Ninth District ally George Campbell Peery to become governor. A popular man, Price had earned the nomination by following the rules, even though Byrd was skeptical of Price's conservatism. As governor, Price and a few members of the assembly who were sympathetic toward the New Deal made a half-hearted but unsuccessful attempt to wrest federal patronage away from Byrd and to break Byrd's control of the state's bureaucracy.
The ultimate challenge to the Byrd Organization's authority came not from a fellow Virginian, however, but from the Supreme Court of the United States. The landmark 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, declared that mandatory racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, a ruling that the organization saw as a major federal intrusion into the state's affairs. By way of response, Byrd and his followers developed a strategy of "massive resistance" to school desegregation and seized on the opportunity to revive loyalty to the organization.
The Organization's Legacy
January 31, 1922 - Harry F. Byrd, a businessman and state senator, is first elected chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party, effectively beginning what is now known as the Byrd Organization.
1926 - The Byrd Organization strengthens when Harry F. Byrd becomes governor. During his four-year term, he reorganizes state government and becomes the most powerful Democrat in Virginia.
1937 - James H. Price becomes the only Democrat to win the gubernatorial nomination over Harry F. Byrd's objection.
1949 - In his Southern Politics in State and Nation, V. O. Key characterizes the Byrd Organization as an oligarchy in which power is maintained by a very small portion of the population.
1954 - The United States Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas poses a challenge to the Byrd Organization, which supports segregation in public schools.
September 15–27, 1958 - Governor J. Lindsay Almond Jr. closes schools in Charlottesville, Front Royal, and Norfolk, and threatens to close others if they attempt to desegregate.
May 1959 - The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals as well as the U.S. District Court rule that the Massive Resistance policies, aimed at preventing desegregation, are unconstitutional.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Tarter, B. Byrd Organization. (2017, November 27). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Byrd_Organization.
- MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent. "Byrd Organization." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 27 Nov. 2017. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: November 27, 2017
Contributed by Brent Tarter, founding editor of the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.