By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Virginia has a long history of racial discrimination and exploitation, beginning with importation of the first slaves to the Colonies, and soon becoming a leading slave trade state. Virginia wasn’t the first state to secede from the Union, but it was probably the most important, and more Civil War battles were fought here than anywhere else.
After the war, Virginia’s political leaders creatively resisted change, most notoriously at the Jim Crow constitutional convention in 1901, where delegates proudly admitted that their sole purpose was to discriminate against racial minorities in every way that federal law allowed.
As a result, at that convention our Virginia’s finest either perpetuated or instituted poll taxes, literacy tests, felon disfranchisement and appointed school boards.
For most of the century, Virginia was a staunch defender of the principle of legal race discrimination, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s the Richmond News Leader became the nation’s leading voice for Massive Resistance, calling on public schools to shut their doors rather than allow racial integration. Some did.
But the civil rights movement was beginning to take hold in Virginia. By the late 1960s, the federal courts had forced the state to abandon literacy tests and polls taxes. Our anti-miscegenation law finally fell in 1967 when the U.S Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. That case, Loving v. Virginia, was brought by the ACLU.
Lest you think we can assign our worst devils to some long ago era, in the mid-1980s, twenty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, there were only a few dozen African-American elected officials in the entire state, counting the Senate, the House of Delegates and local elected bodies in more that 100 jurisdictions. That changed when the ACLU and the NAACP began filing lawsuits against local governments, and when we successfully advocated – with the threat of litigation, of course – for the dramatic redrawing of electoral district lines at the state and federal level in 1991.
After the Virginia General Assembly begrudgingly redrew its election districts, the number of African-American senators and delegates nearly doubled in one election cycle, and Virginia immediately elected its first African-American congressman since Reconstruction. The number of local elected officials almost doubled, too, reaching 125 by 1993.
It was about that time that Virginia took another baby-step forward by finally allowing elected school boards. It was the very last state in the nation to do so.
Virginia’s only remaining vestige of Jim Crow is felon disfranchisement. In fact, Virginia is now one of only two states – Kentucky is the other—that permanently disfranchises all felons, requiring an act of the governor for voting rights to be restored.
Last year a felon disfranchisement reform bill passed the Senate and even received some support in the House Privileges and Elections Committee, but it ultimately failed there on a 12-10 vote.
Advocates launched a laudable effort to convince Governor Tim Kaine to reform the voter restoration process in Virginia. Kaine, a supporter of reform, clearly had the authority to issue an executive order that would have all but eliminated felon disfranchisement in Virginia, but he inexplicably failed to act before leaving office.
There is much more to casting off the long shadows of prejudice than striking down old discriminatory laws, but it’s a good start. As Black History Month ends, it is time for us to begin again our efforts to, once and for all, rid Virginia of its last official race discrimination policy.
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