Fifty years ago today, Virginia became a true democracy.

You might wonder what all the fuss was about back in the summer when we marked the 400th anniversary of the first elections for a legislature in North America — the Virginia House of Burgesses, the forerunner of today’s General Assembly. That was democracy in a way, although that democracy was limited to white men who owned a certain amount of property.

Even in more modern times, Virginia had only the semblance of a democracy. After the Civil War, Virginia’s new constitution allowed African Americans to vote for the first time — well, African American men. Even that outraged the state’s conservative establishment (the full phrase is important, because conservatives who weren’t part of that establishment weren’t welcome, either). In time, that conservative establishment seized power, junked the state’s constitution and in 1902 wrote a new one that disenfranchised as many people as possible, blacks and whites alike. Just like that, the number of eligible voters was cut by more than half. That enabled a series of political “machines” to run the state. The famous political scientist V.O. Key observed in those days that Virginia’s political choices were so few that “by contrast, Mississippi is a hotbed of democracy.”

All that came crumbling down 50 years ago today when Virginia elected Linwood Holton as governor. The historical importance of Holton’s election cannot be overstated. Holton was the first Republican elected governor in the state since Reconstruction. His election ushered in something completely new in Virginia: A two-party system. The nature of the two parties has changed substantially since 1969, but it’s fair to date to beginning of “modern” Virginia politics to Holton’s election.

Holton didn’t just smash the one-party system that had governed Virginia, he also declared an end to Virginia’s segregationist ways. Formal segregation may have ended in the state, but only grudgingly. Holton’s predecessor as governor, Mills Godwin, had once been a legislative leader on behalf of Massive Resistance. Holton stood outside the State Capitol and forcefully declared in his inaugural address: “The era of defiance is behind us.” Just in case that wasn’t clear enough, he went on to say: “Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”

Those words may seem innocuous today. In Virginia in 1969 they were practically revolutionary. Holton was not only the state’s first Republican governor after nearly a century of conservative Democrats, he also was a civil rights governor. He appointed African Americans to key positions in state government. He famously escorted one of his daughters to an integrated school in Richmond — a picture that appeared in newspapers across the country. He ordered an end to the state’s history textbooks that taught a mix of propaganda and outright lies about the state’s racial history. He was a transformative governor in other ways. He re-organized state government; the cabinet system we have now dates from the Holton administration. He was also an environmental governor. At the time, Smith Mountain Lake was polluted with raw sewage that Roanoke and other localities dumped into the Roanoke River, because that’s just how things were done then. Holton changed all that. Today, the lake is used for drinking water. You can trace all that back to what happened on Nov. 4, 1969.

It’s sometimes hard to appreciate Holton’s election now because politics are so different. For most of the 1900s, the Virginia Democratic Party was a staunchly conservative — and segregationist — outfit. Republicans were few in number. What few Republicans did exist were clustered in the western part of the state, where racial issues were not paramount, which meant Republicans were often to the left of the Democrats. The only elections that mattered were Democratic primaries, where the Byrd Machine installed its preferred candidate as the party’s nominee in low-turnout elections.

Things started to change after World War II. Holton, who had grown up in Big Stone Gap, came home from World War II and was astonished to learn that Democrat William Tuck had been elected governor with the support of only 8% of Virginians. The rest either didn’t bother to vote or simply weren’t allowed to. “I wanted to break up that machine,” he recalled a few years ago. He looked around the state to find place to make his political base. He chose Roanoke. “I knew Roanoke was a wide-open, broad-thinking community that was open to change. Roanoke was the place to do it.” Through the ’50s and ’60s, the “mountain-valley Republicans” mounted one challenge after another. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower helped sweep in Republican congressmen in the 6th and 9th congressional districts (and also the 10th in Northern Virginia). In 1953, the combination of a weak Democratic candidate (Tom Stanley of Henry County) and a strong Republican one (Ted Dalton of Radford) almost resulted in a Republican upset. Almost. The politics of Massive Resistance set back these moderate-minded Republicans — segregation was quite popular with Virginia’s white voters. Republicans weren’t the only ones on the rise, though. So were liberal Democrats who sprouted up to challenge their conservative leaders. All that came to a head in 1969 when the Democratic Party finally broke apart. Their primary that year was a bitter, three-way contest between an old-line conservative (Fred Pollard), a moderate (Bill Battle) and a liberal (Henry Howell). Battle won, but the party was a shambles. Meanwhile, the state’s electorate had changed in some dramatic ways that helped Republicans at the time. The suburbs were growing, with a lot of newcomers who felt no attachment to the Old South. And the Voting Rights Act opened the door for a lot of black voters. From 1961 to 1969, the state’s electorate more than doubled. Holton alone polled more votes than were cast in the entire governor’s race in 1961, and nearly as many as were cast in 1965. Until Holton, only two Republicans in the 20th century had topped 40% in a gubernatorial race; some had only polled in the teens. It really was a new day in Virginia.

In time, Virginia politics re-ordered itself to the configuration we know today. Democrats became a purely left-of-center party and the moderate Republicans like Holton were shunted aside by conservatives. Still, the fact remains: Holton’s election a half-century ago today brought two-party democracy to Virginia.

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