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Alexandria reporter tackles the anti-unionization and anti-integration legacy of The Byrd Machine

Years before Alexandria would grapple with collective bargaining and the legacy of discrimination in schools, Virginia was ruled by a political faction dead-set on fighting unionization and integration.

Alexandria reporter Michael Lee Pope — a reporter with the Alexandria Gazette who has frequently covered Virginia’s state politics for WAMU — announced a new book last week that dives into the history of The Byrd Machine, a political operation led by Harry Byrd that dominated Virginia politics during the mid-20th century.

The Byrd Machine in Virginia charts the rise and fall of the eponymous political block, with both a look back at the history of the previous “machines” that made The Byrd Machine possible.

Pope said Byrd’s career started as a movement aimed primarily at eliminating debt.

“He got into this political debate when he was in the Senate about road building and not making debt. This is his whole thing, he’s very consistent, he doesn’t like debt.”

Pope said Byrd’s early campaign was about paying for projects as you go and he developed a name for himself as someone making the state government pay its debt. Byrd had a reputation as a penny pincher, going back to driving to Maryland every day to get cheaper rolls of paper for a failing Winchester newspaper he owned.

After being elected as governor in 1926, Byrd started to take measures to coalesce power and keep those in the Byrd Machine in power.

Two of the biggest legacies of Byrd, Pope said, is his opposition to unions and integration. In 1946, workers at VEPCO, the predecessor to Dominion Energy, attempted to form a strike and unionize. Governor William Tuck, a successor to Byrd and a part of his machine, drafted the workers into the state’s national guard and threatened to court martial them if they attempted to strike.

“So many people blame the Byrd machine for all manner of things,” Pope said. “This issue of collective bargaining… only recently given the legal ability to do collective bargaining. That was taken away in the 90s. It would be easy to blame Byrd and say ‘that’s the Byrd machine’ but that’s 1990s era politics.”

Still, Pope said the anti-unionization work in the 90s was still part of the legacy of Byrd’s politics.

“At the same time, don’t forget these people pioneered union-busting in a way that was visionary for its time,” Pope said, “There is an important part of collective bargaining as part of that legacy.”

The more well-known parts of Byrd’s legacy is arguably the machine’s opposition to integration. It was also the position that set the stage for the machine’s downfall. The Byrd Machine was instrumental in keeping schools segregated to the point of closing public schools rather than seeing them integrated in the late 1950s.

Though the machine had a “swan song” in the 1960s, Pope said the controversies around massive resistance ultimately led to the fracturing of The Byrd Machine as the Lyndon Johnson presidency divided the loyalties of racist southern Democrats.

Pope said he is planning to host a launch event for the book at The Athenaeum (201 Prince Street) on Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7 p.m.

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