The Byrd Grip on Virginia Loosens

(Wayne Woodlief, a Nieman Fellow concluding a year at Harvard, is a general assignment reporter for the Norfolk, Va. Ledger-Star. His assignments reporter for the Norfolk, Va. Ledger-Star. His assignments have included race relations and politics. He has followed the Virginia senatorial campaign through newspapers from his state and correspondence with politicians.)

There was a time when men could count on certain apparently eternal verities. The Yankees would win the pennant, Notre Dame would go undefeated in football, and Virginia politics would march to the tune of U.S. Senator Harry Flood Byrd.

Yet times and men change, and the old truths of Virginia politics have slipped further than the Yankees or Notre Dame.

As Virginia nears the rare chance to choose both its U.S. senators in the same year (for the first time since 1911), vote-catching in the Old Dominion has assumed an Alice in Wonderland character:

* Mills Godwin, a Suffolk lawyer who in 1959 favored closing public schools rather than having them integrated, was elected governor last year by a coalition of Negro, liberal, and Byrd Organization voters.

* The Virginia Conservative Party, an ultra-right organization created last summer to oppose Godwin, race-mixing, and "Socialism," will not support Virginia's incumbent senators, A. Willis Robertson and Byrd's son, Harry Jr., though both have been poison to liberals for years.

* The Virginia AFL-CIO Committee on Political Education (COPE) has endorsed both senate challengers, Armistead L. Boothe, who is opposing Byrd, and State Sen. William B. Spong, Robertson's opponent--though both say they favor state right-to-work laws.

Thirty-five seats in a changing U.S. Senate are at stake in primaries this summer and general elections in November, and in Virginia the stakes are the life or death--or further fracturing--of a political organization which controlled the state for nearly 40 years.

Harry F. Byrd Sr., the man who built the machine and set it running when he was elected governor in 1926, retired from the Senate last November after running unopposed for reelection in 1964. Seventy-eight years old and stricken with arthritis, he had outgoing governor Albertis S. Harrison appoint "Young Harry," 51, to take his place. Virginia liberals and moderates railed against the "hereditary succession" and prepared to take on Byrd Jr. and Robertson in the state Democratic primary July 10.

Byrd Sr. lives quietly among his apple orchards in the Shenandoah Valley now, and from all reports, is aloof to the changes sweeping through the state he so firmly controlled as recently as 1963.

'Sixty-three seemed the year of lost hope for Virginia liberals. Gov. Harrison and Lt. Gov. Godwin had defeated a liberal ticket in 1961. The "Young Turks"--Boothe of Alexandria, Toy Savage of Norfolk and others--who had fought the Byrd Organization's segregation and tight budget policies during the '50s--were beaten and tired and did not run for the state legislature in '63. The conservatives who did run and were elected ignored a state constitutional mandate to reapportion the legislature.

Those were deceptively sweet days for the Organization. A constitutional amendment, banning the use of the poll tax in federal elections, had been passed by Congress and was moving toward ratification by the states.

By the summer of 1964, the abolition of the poll tax for federal elections merged with another singular event, the Republican nomination of Barry Goldwaver for President. It proved to be an explosive mixture in Virginia.

The state had passed the poll tax at a constitutional convention in 1902 for the stated purpose of disfranchising Negroes. The new law required the $150 a year to be paid six months before an election. If a prospective voter had never paid poll taxes, he must pay them for the preceding three years. With penalties for non-payment attached, the price of a vote was $5.85.

The nomination of Goldwater gave Virginia Negroes a target and the abolition of the poll tax gave them a chance to shoot. Negro registration doubled, reaching an estimated 200,000 by November, and Negro votes carried Virginia for Lyndon Johnson. More than 100,000 Negroes voted--about 95 per cent of them for Johnson--and the President won the state by 74,600 votes.