Former Gov. Linwood Holton – who passed away Thursday at age 98 – is rightly famous for bringing an end to a sorry era of Virginia politics and ushering in another.
There were many people who helped bring down the segregationist Byrd Machine that ruled Virginia as a one-party state – some were liberals who tried to redefine the Democratic Party from within, some were Republicans who challenged it from without. There was Francis Pickens Miller, who grew up in Rockbridge County and threw a scare into Byrd Democrats by nearly winning the 1949 Democratic primary for governor. There was Republican Ted Dalton of Radford, who threw another scare into the Byrd Democrats by nearly winning the governorship in 1953. But history will always record that it was Abner Linwood Holton Jr., a son of Big Stone Gap, who finally did win the governorship in 1969, becoming the first Republican elected governor in Virginia in a hundred years and the first person other than a Democrat to win the office since William Cameron of the short-lived Readjuster Party in 1881.
Holton’s victory was more than just a personal victory or even a party victory, although it was both. His victory – and his administration that followed – emphatically drew a line between the past and the future in Virginia. There’s a reason why we date the beginning of the modern era in Virginia politics from 1969. It’s not too much hyperbole to say that Holton’s victory brought down an oligarchy – albeit an oligarchy that was getting shaky – and gave Virginia a two-party democracy. Holton’s victory was more than just political, though. It was social and cultural.
Before Holton, our governor was Mills Godwin, who had once been a segregationist and one of the most trusted lieutenants of Sen. Harry Byrd Sr., who had declared “massive resistance” to the mere idea of integration. Then one cloudy day in January 1970 we had a governor who looked out from Thomas Jefferson’s capital and made a very different sort of declaration. “The era of defiance is over,” Holton proclaimed. And just in case anyone misunderstood those words, there were more: “Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.” No Virginia governor had ever said such a thing, and the effect it had was more than electrifying – it was emotional.
Years ago, I interviewed Wilma Warren, one of the founders of what was then still called Total Action Against Poverty in Roanoke (today it’s Total Action For Progress). She told me she listened to Holton’s inaugural address on the radio, and broke into tears. That’s how powerful Holton’s message was that day. (And if you’re curious, Warren was white.) Holton did more than say the words; he followed them up with action. That action might seem mild by today’s standards, but his actions in the early ’70s were considered nothing short of revolutionary. He was the first Virginia to have a Black adviser on his staff – Bill Robertson, an educator from Roanoke. He appointed the first Black director of the state’s draft board. He famously escorted one of his daughters to an integrated school in Richmond.
About Linwood Holton
Born in 1923 in Big Stone Gap.
Served in U.S. Navy during World War II.
Education: W&L and Harvard Law.
Practiced law in Roanoke from 1949 until he was elected governor in 1969.
Lived most recently in Kilmarnock on the Northern Neck.
Little-known fact: The dress that his daughter wore in the iconic photograph was made by a dress-maker in Big Stone Gap. Mary Trigiani had this appreciation in 2008.
Those were the things that made headlines – in the case of escorting his daughter to school, an iconic photo in the New York Times. Holton, though, was not simply a performative politician. It’s only in recent years that we’ve learned the full extent of Holton’s efforts to tear down the old ways in Virginia. Last year, I was asked by the University of Virginia Press to review a manuscript of Robertson’s memoir and recommend whether it should be published. (It will be. “Lifting Every Voice: My Journey from Segregated Roanoke to the Corridors of Power” will be published in February 2022.) It was from that memoir that I learned stories about Holton that I don’t ever recall seeing in print before. If they ever did make print, they certainly weren’t well-known.
Among them: One of the tasks that Holton assigned Robertson was to integrate the state’s workforce. That was easier said than done. Many agency heads considered Holton a temporary inconvenience; they figured they could simply wait out his four-year term and things would return to the way they always had been. One of the most intransigent agencies was the state police. The commander told Robertson that, of course, he’d be willing to hire a Black trooper, but he just couldn’t find any suitable applicants. Sorry. The commander didn’t count on Robertson embarking on a 25-day recruiting trip that produced no fewer than 20 applicants. Then the first three to take the required qualifying test passed. Robertson went back to the state police commander, who said, sorry, he had no positions available. When Robertson told Holton, the governor’s response was swift. He ordered the state police commander to his office “within the hour.” The commander showed up as summoned, Robertson wrote, but gave the governor various excuses for why he couldn’t hire the men. “The governor interrupted, called him by name, and spoke emphatically, ‘I want them hired tomorrow morning.’” They were. Robertson – at Holton’s directive – went through the rest of state government, agency by agency, making sure Black applicants were hired.
Something else that Holton did that didn’t get much attention at the time, but looms much larger now: He ordered the state to get rid of history textbooks that essentially taught propaganda (and in a few cases, outright lies). In the 1950s, the state’s powers that be became concerned that Virginia students weren’t sufficiently imbued with the proper “Virginia spirit.” In other words, with a civil rights movement rising, Virginia students needed to be schooled in white supremacy. Virginia impaneled a commission that produced new textbooks that, among other things, taught about how slaves were happy and how abolitionists “lied” about its evils. The textbooks glorified the state’s 1902 constitution that disenfranchised nearly half the state’s voters, including virtually every Black voter in the state. You get the idea. So did Holton. He ordered the textbooks replaced. I can’t help but think that many of our misunderstandings about history today are the result of an entire generation that was taught state-sanctioned propaganda about our racial history.
So much of the story of the Holton administration is told in terms of how he set about dismantling the artifacts of segregation that it’s easy to overlook the other things his administration did. He cleaned up the state’s rivers. This was an era in which Roanoke still discharged raw sewage into the Roanoke River, which turned the newly filled Smith Mountain Lake into a giant cesspool. Under Godwin, state regulators weren’t particularly concerned about raw sewage floating in the lake, or factories that were pouring toxic wastes into waterways across the state. “Do we want to stop the growth of industry?” asked the chairman of the State Water Control Board. Holton had other ideas. The headline out of his inaugural address was about race, but he also spent a good portion of that address talking about the environment. Once again, he followed words with action. Holton cleaned out the State Water Control Board and installed a new majority. All four of his appointees were in their 30s, a shocking youth movement in the Old Dominion. Three were involved with environmental causes. One appointee was a woman, another astonishing break from the past. The remade board forced – yes, forced – local governments to build sewage treatment plants. Smith Mountain Lake – and other waterways – got cleaned up because Holton and his appointees were willing to strong-arm local governments into action. Today, both the Bedford Regional Water Authority and the Western Virginia Regional Water Authority get some of their drinking water from Smith Mountain Lake. If you’re between Forest and Fincastle, raise a toast of tap water to Holton for making that possible.
Holton has been honored more than many former governors – there’s an elementary school named after him in Richmond, a governor’s school in Abingdon, a downtown park in Roanoke (where he practiced law at the time he was elected governor). But he probably still hasn’t been honored enough. Holton now belongs to the ages, but we should claim his legacy for here and now.