Someone has placed a wreath at the Holton Plaza in downtown Roanoke. Former Gov. Linwood Holton passed away in October. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

The year 2021 is about to pass, but the year 1969 is, as well.

This year we lost two big links to 1969, perhaps the best year from which to date the beginning of Virginia’s modern political history.

That year saw the election of Virginia’s first non-Democratic governor since William Cameron of the Readjuster Party in 1881 – Republican Linwood Holton. It also saw a generational changing of the guard. Virginia in 1969 still had officeholders from a previous century, quite literally. Outgoing Attorney General Robert Button was born in 1899. In 1969, Virginia elected a mixed slate of Republicans and Democrats but they all had one one thing in common: In political terms, they were all quite young. Holton was 46; the new lieutenant governor, J. Sargeant Reynolds was 33; the new attorney general, Andrew Miller, was 36.

Linwood Holton in 1970, the year he was inaugurated as governor. Courtesy of Virginia Legislature Photograph Collection.

This year both Holton and Miller died, and Virginia marked the 50th anniversary of Reynolds’ untimely passing.

Before we turn the page on 2021, let’s take some time to reflect on 1969 and what it meant for Virginia – and the nation.

Holton’s story is well-known and, sadly, his death this fall provided occasion to tell it once more. Before 1969, Virginia was effectively a one-party state. Democrats – usually conservative Democrats – had won every statewide election since 1885 when they wrested control away from the Readjusters, who evolved into Republicans and a distinct minority status in Virginia. There had been occasional deviations from the Democratic establishment – Westmoreland Davis, elected governor in 1917, was something of a reformer for his day, and William Spong, elected U.S. senator in 1966, heralded a new generation of Democrats who were more aligned with their left-of-center national party. But no Republican had been elected to statewide office since Gilbert Walker in the Reconstruction year of 1869. Now, after a century, Holton shattered that barrier and started turning Virginia into a true multiparty democracy. We remember that Holton was a civil rights governor, famous for declaring “the era of defiance is behind us,” but the passage of time sometimes makes it hard to appreciate just how revolutionary a statement that was. Virginia in 1969 was still just six years removed from Prince Edward County’s public schools being closed rather than integrate. The nation was just six years removed from another Southern governor – George Wallace – standing in the schoolhouse door to block the entrance of two Black students to the University of Alabama. Now here was another Southern state that had elected a governor who would famously escort his daughter to an integrated school with a spring in his step and a smile on his face that was captured in a front-page photograph in The New York Times.

That alone would make 1969 a landmark year for Virginia, but there was so much more. While from different parties – Reynolds and Miller were Democrats – all three winners in 1969 reflected a new Virginia being born. Reynolds may be best remembered for a speech he gave at the Shad Planking, a fish fry in Wakefield that was then a political rite of passage. The U.S. Supreme Court had just upheld busing as a way to achieve school integration and there were rumblings among the state’s old guard that perhaps they had abandoned Massive Resistance too soon. Reynolds stood before them and made it clear those days were in the past. “Virginia will not be propelled into Massive Resistance again,” Reynolds declared to astonished onlookers who had not expected this kind of talk, not from a scion of a well-known Virginia family. “If coming down here to the Shad Planking in Southside Virginia and making such statements spells political doom for me – so be it,” Reynolds said. “At least I will have had the very warm feeling of having done and said what I thought needed doing and saying.” By that June, Reynolds was dead from a brain tumor – but during his short time in politics he had etched his name into Virginia history for his profile in political courage.

Miller was not nearly so dramatic, which makes it easy, too easy, to overlook what he did to drag Virginia out of the past. He was the first Virginia attorney general to hire a Black assistant attorney general – and a female one. One night, that Black assistant attorney general was pulled over in a rural Southside county en route to a hearing the next day and the officer refused to believe he was an attorney for the state. That was the Virginia we still had then, and the Virginia that, between them, Holton, Reynolds and Miller were trying to put behind them.

Virginia has changed so much, in so many ways, that sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s still the same state. When the census was taken the following year, Loudoun County was home to 37,150 people, making it slightly smaller than Tazewell County. That’s certainly not the case today.

It’s also a marvel how many of the statewide candidates in 1969 had ties to the western part of the state. Holton was a son of Big Stone Gap who practiced law in Roanoke at the time of his election. Reynolds was from Richmond but his family was from Patrick County, which is where he was buried. Miller was an attorney in Abingdon. They weren’t alone: The Republican candidate whom Reynolds defeated, Buzz Dawburn, was from Waynesboro. The Republican candidate whom Miller defeated, Richard Obenshain, lived in the Richmond area but had been born in Abingdon. Only the Democratic candidate for governor whom Holton defeated, Bill Battle, had no clear ties to Southwest Virginia. We certainly don’t see many candidates today with connections to either Southwest or Southside Virginia and, in the case of Democrats, it’s even rarer that they even visit the region at all.

Virginia in 1969 was not nearly as polarized politically as it is now; almost every locality was competitive. Only a few saw their tallies for one candidate or another top 60%; only two topped 70% and only one topped 80%. Now it’s the other way around. This year there were 16 localities where one candidate scored more than 80%. In some ways, large parts of Virginia are reverting to the one-party state that Holton and the Republican Party in 1969 were trying to smash. It’s also notable that by the time of their deaths, both Holton and Miller were estranged from the parties they represented in 1969. Republicans moved further right than Holton was comfortable with; Democrats moved further left than Miller was comfortable with.

And yet so much of what Virginia is today can be traced back to 1969. Holton set up the state’s first cabinet system; before him, all agency heads reported directly to the governor. As Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin makes his appointments, he’s following a template laid down by Holton. Miller, too, reorganized the attorney general’s office into something that resembles its modern structure. Before him, many agencies were represented by private attorneys. Miller insisted that state agencies be represented by state lawyers. Whatever Attorney General-elect Jason Miyares does policywise, he will be following Miller’s organizational structure. Politically, 1969 opened the door for others whose names we will recognize. When Reynolds was elected lieutenant governor, he left behind a vacancy in the state Senate. That went to Douglas Wilder. Miller hired an all-star legal team in the attorney general’s office. That first Black assistant attorney general was William Robinson, who went on to a long legislative career representing Norfolk in the House of Delegates. Others included two future attorneys general, Gerald Baliles and Anthony Troy, the former of whom went on to become governor – so in a way 1969 saw the election of one governor and set two others, Baliles and Wilder, on their path to the governorship. One of Holton’s daughters, Anne, became a judge and a state cabinet secretary – and married a future governor and U.S. senator, Democrat Tim Kaine. Obenshain, who lost the attorney general’s race that year, went on to shape the Virginia Republican Party in other ways, making it more conservative. He went on to win his party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate and might well have won the election — a rematch against Miller — had he not perished in a plane crash in 1978.

Time moves on. On election night in 1969, future governor Glenn Youngkin was just 2, future lieutenant governor Winsome Sears was 5 and still living in Jamaica, and future attorney general Jason Miyares had yet to be born. But when those three Republicans take their oath of office in January, they’d be wise to reflect upon the events in 1969 that helped lead us to where we are now.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.