Author: James R. Sweeney

associate professor of history, Old Dominion University

J. Sargeant Reynolds (1936–1971)

J. Sargeant Reynolds was a member of the House of Delegates (1966–1967) and the Senate of Virginia (1968–1969) and was the lieutenant governor of Virginia (1970–1971). The son of industrialist Richard S. Reynolds Jr., he enjoyed the advantages of wealth and social position, but used his privilege to advocate for the less fortunate. Reynolds positioned himself as a moderate and won support across the political spectrum despite his more liberal goals, which included education improvement, economic development, and equal opportunity regardless of race. The Virginia Democrats‘ most promising candidate for the 1973 gubernatorial race, Reynolds was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor in the summer of 1970. After undergoing radiation treatments, he was able to preside over the state senate in January 1971. That April, at a whites-only political gathering in Southside Virginia, he denounced the Byrd Organization‘s Massive Resistance policy and defiance of United States Supreme Court decisions such as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina (1971), which upheld the busing of schoolchildren for the purpose of desegregation. Thereafter, his health declined: further radiation treatments weakened his immune system, and he contracted pneumonia. He died on June 13, 1971, at age thirty-four.


Henry E. Howell (1920–1997)

Henry E. Howell served in the House of Delegates (1960–1962, 1964–1965) and the Senate of Virginia (1966–1971), representing the Norfolk area. He was lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1971 to 1974. Howell ran unsuccessfully for governor three times, losing in the Democratic runoff primary in 1969 and in the general elections of 1973 and 1977. Howell was a harsh critic of Virginia’s conservative Democratic political organization headed by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. Howell’s principal achievements were as a member of the General Assembly and as an attorney representing clients in federal courts and before the Virginia State Corporation Commission. Howell was an avowed populist, a champion of the ordinary citizen against big economic interests and their political allies. He challenged the poll tax and represented plaintiffs seeking greater representation for urban areas in the General Assembly. Howell also sued the governor to stop the commonwealth from deducting the amount of federal appropriations to “impacted area” school systems from the State’s aid to those school systems. Howell’s consumer advocacy included numerous rate cases that resulted in rebates from automobile insurance, electric power, and telephone companies. Howell campaigned for Democratic candidates in his later years and died in 1997.


Mills E. Godwin (1914–1999)

Mills E. Godwin was the only governor of Virginia elected by the voters to two terms, serving as a Democrat from 1966 to 1970 and as a Republican from 1974 to 1978. After playing a major legislative role in Virginia’s resistance to desegregation of the public schools in the 1950s, Godwin adopted more moderate positions as lieutenant governor from 1962 to 1966 and as candidate for governor in 1965. During his first term he was responsible for enactment of a sales tax and approval of the first significant statewide bond issue in the twentieth century. Godwin devoted the additional revenue to public education, mental health, and highways. The creation of the Virginia Community College System was one of Godwin’s major accomplishments. He also appointed a commission to revise the Constitution of 1902. Constitutionally ineligible to succeed himself, Godwin left office in 1970. Disillusioned by the growing influence of liberals in the Virginia Democratic Party, Godwin sought the governorship again as a Republican in 1973. He narrowly defeated Lieutenant Governor Henry E. Howell. Godwin’s second term coincided with an economic recession, energy shortages, and an environmental catastrophe. In a time of retrenchment his major initiatives were improvements to state prisons and a second bond issue approved in 1977.


W. Fred Duckworth (1899–1972)

W. Fred Duckworth served as Norfolk‘s mayor from 1950 until 1962. While the dynamic and forceful Duckworth earned plaudits for his large urban-renewal projects, his brusque governing style and fight against desegregation attracted controversy. His successes included improvements to the transportation infrastructure, expansion of the city’s port, and his key role in creating the MacArthur Memorial, in honor of General Douglas MacArthur. Duckworth received criticism, especially from Norfolk’s large African American community, regarding the administration’s hiring practices, city services, and development plans that bulldozed interracial neighborhoods. He also backed Massive Resistance, a statewide plan that opposed the desegregation of public schools, urging the city council in 1959 to cut off all funds for schools above the sixth grade. In 1972, nearly a decade after stepping down as mayor, an unknown assailant murdered Duckworth. His murder remains unsolved.


Democratic Party of Virginia

The Democratic Party, the dominant political party in Virginia from the 1880s to the 1960s, can trace its origins to the early years of the republic, when disputes over domestic and foreign policies gave birth to the Republican (Democratic-Republican) and Federalist parties. In the 1830s, while Andrew Jackson was president, the name “Democratic” began to gain currency among his supporters. Opposition to Jackson’s policies resulted in the formation of a party known as the Whigs. Two-party competition continued in the Old Dominion until the eve of the American Civil War (1861–1865). During Reconstruction (1865–1877), Congress mandated the enfranchisement of black males. Former Democrats and Whigs established the Conservative Party. After Reconstruction, the Conservatives triumphed, but soon they lost power to an interracial coalition known as the Readjusters. In 1883 the Conservative Party changed its name to the Democratic Party. They regained control of the General Assembly that same year, and the governorship two years later. Their control solidified by the suffrage provisions of the Virginia Constitution of 1902, the Democrats were immune to challenge in statewide elections for decades—the only meaningful competition was in the Democratic primary. Early in the twentieth century, party leader Thomas S. Martin and later Harry F. Byrd Sr. developed political organizations based on the support of local officials across the state, but by the 1960s the Byrd Organization was in decline: changes in federal civil rights laws, federal court decisions, the arrival of many newcomers in the state, the rise of the modern Republican Party, and the passing of the old generation of Democratic leaders initiated a party realignment. In the 1970s Virginia’s political parties were philosophically more in tune with their respective national parties. Since then, two-party competition has characterized Virginia politics. Virginia Democrats made history by electing an African American as governor in 1989 and giving the state’s electoral vote to Barack Obama, the first African American to be the candidate of a major party for president, in 2008.


Harry B. Davis (1893–1987)

Harry B. Davis was a longtime Democratic member of the House of Delegates, representing Princess Anne County and Virginia Beach. Beginning his state political career in the 1930s, he rose to become an influential figure in the General Assembly during the next two decades. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling, in Brown v. Board of Education, that mandatory racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Davis supported local option plans for desegregation and tuition grants for white students to attend private, segregated schools. While hardly an integrationist, Davis’s key role in opposing Massive Resistance, the statewide plan to oppose school segregation, alienated him from the staunchly segregationist Byrd Organization and cost him his political career: in 1959, a candidate backed by the organization defeated Davis in the Democratic primary. Davis returned to Virginia Beach and died in Norfolk in 1987.


Harry Flood Jr. Byrd (1914–2013)

Harry F. Byrd Jr. represented Virginia in the United States Senate from 1965 to 1983 after serving seventeen years in the Senate of Virginia. A member of one of Virginia’s most powerful political families, Byrd took over the Senate seat from his father in 1965. Byrd, however, was also something of a dissident, quitting the Democratic Party in 1970 to run as an Independent. In addition to his career in politics, Byrd followed his father into journalism as well, serving as editor and publisher of the Winchester Star from 1935 to 1981 and as publisher of the Harrisonburg Daily News-Record from 1939 to 2001. He died in 2013.


John Stewart Battle (1890–1972)

John Stewart Battle was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates (1930–1934) and the Senate of Virginia (1934–1950), and served as governor of Virginia (1950–1954). A loyal Democrat in line with the Byrd Organization, the state machine run by U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., Battle overcame a spirited challenge by three fellow Democrats to win the 1949 gubernatorial primary. His greatest achievement as governor was a massive school construction program to accommodate the first wave of the baby boom. Battle gained national recognition when he addressed the 1952 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois, in an effort to prevent the Virginia delegation from losing its vote due to a disagreement over a loyalty oath. Although the U.S. Supreme Court did not announce its 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas—which mandated the desegregation of public schools—until after Battle left office, civil rights issues were emerging during his term. In a somewhat ironic end to his public service, Battle, a segregationist, was appointed by U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1957.

Sponsors  |  View all