Sarah Rankin, Associated Press, January 22, 2021
A panel of Virginia legislators advanced a bill Friday to remove a statue of Harry F. Byrd Sr., a staunch segregationist, from the state Capitol grounds.
The decision came amid a yearslong effort in history-rich Virginia to rethink who is honored in the state’s public spaces. Byrd, a Democrat, served as governor and U.S. senator. He ran the state’s most powerful political machine for decades until his death in 1966 and was considered the architect of the state’s racist “massive resistance” policy to public school integration.
“It is my deep belief that monuments to segregation, massive resistance, and the subjugation of one race below another, like this statue, serve only as a reminder to the overt and institutional racism that has and continues to plague our Commonwealth,” the bill’s sponsor, Del. Jay Jones, said when introducing the measure.
The bill moved out of the House committee on a party-line vote of 13-5, with all Republicans voting against it. It still must clear both chambers of the General Assembly, but with Democrats controlling the statehouse and Democrat Gov. Ralph Northam backing the measure, it is almost certain to pass.
Northam highlighted the bill in an address to lawmakers earlier this month, saying the state should no longer celebrate a man who fought integration.
Rita Davis, counselor to the governor, spoke on behalf of the administration Friday.
“Had Mr. Byrd had his way, I would never have the opportunity to be before you because I am Black,” she said. “Certain members of the General Assembly would never be able to serve because they’re not white.”
In the 1950s, Byrd’s political machine implemented a series of official state policies that opposed court-ordered public school integration and even closed some public schools rather than desegregate them.
The larger-than-life statue erected in 1976 and located a stone’s throw from the Capitol depicts Byrd with a copy of the federal budget. A nearby plaque says the statue was dedicated in appreciation of Byrd’s “devotion throughout a long public career to governmental restraint and programs in the best interest of all the people of Virginia.”
In an unusual twist, a similar measure to remove the Byrd statue was filed last year by a freshman Republican lawmaker.
Republican Del. Wendell Walker introduced the bill, apparently with the aim of needling Democrats who were pushing for the removal of Confederate monuments, saying “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
But when met with agreement from across the aisle on removing the statue, Walker asked that the bill be killed, and Democrats acquiesced.