Holton showed Virginia the way on race relations

Published 4:06 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2021

I met Linwood Holton as we boarded a helicopter in Alexandria, bound for the Shenandoah Valley, where he was campaigning in the early fall of 1969. He was on his way to becoming governor of Virginia and I was a part-time reporter for the Alexandria Gazette when I wasn’t doing my full-time job as a Navy yeoman in the Pentagon.

What Holton told voters in those football field stops that day totally escapes me. I know I took notes and wrote a story of sorts when we returned to Alexandria, but have no idea what it said. What I do remember is that the helicopter was well beyond its prime, too noisy to hear yourself think and shook like hell as it rattled across Northern Virginia.

I didn’t come to know the man until almost three decades later when, in 1996, he and another former governor, Gerald Baliles, met with a group of public access stalwarts from around the state who were talking about forming a broad-based organization to push for greater access to public meetings and records.

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Holton and Baliles, longtime friends and political allies, knew all the pitfalls to open government in Virginia, and gave the group a heavy dose of reality that evening. In the end, they heartily endorsed the group’s efforts and a short time later, the Virginia Coalition for Open Government was created with their vocal backing.

My admiration for Holton, however, had begun with that first encounter, back in 1969. Though I don’t remember the stump speeches he made that day, it didn’t take long to realize that this native of Big Stone Gap was a man of conviction and courage, who would do more than any elected official of his era to end Virginia’s disastrous embrace of massive resistance.

In his January 1970 inauguration address, Holton called on the state to become a leader in forging positive race relations.

“Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”

Holton practiced what he preached, and his attitude toward race was captured for posterity in an Associated Press photograph shot in August 1970, showing Holton walking with his daughter Tayloe to a recently integrated, largely black public school near the governor’s mansion. It was the school in which a court-ordered integration plan had placed Capitol Square and the school that the governor would ensure she attended.

Holton was the first Republican to be elected governor in more than 80 years and he did much to make his party a viable competitor in Virginia politics. However, his progressive ideas ran afoul of the emerging conservative party leadership, which was more inclined to follow Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” than Holton’s vision of a progressive Virginia.

After a term as governor, he was denied the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate and retired from active politics. In his typically good-natured style, he joked of becoming an “elder statesman” at that point.

He never retired from, nor tired of, promoting equality and a spirit of cooperation among Virginians, however. He forged lasting friendships with Baliles, John Warner and other moderates in both parties, and broke sharply with Republicans by endorsing Doug Wilder, who in 1990 became Virginia’s first black governor since Reconstruction.

Holton’s daughter Anne married a young lawyer named Tim Kaine, a Democrat who became lieutenant governor and then governor of Virginia. Kaine is now a U.S. senator, the position denied his father-in-law decades ago.

Holton and Baliles became a familiar team around the commonwealth. Together, they called on Virginians to eschew the increasing divisiveness in public discourse and politics.

Thanks to the leadership of Linwood Holton and men and women like him, Virginia is a far different place than it was in 1969, but given the angry dialogue and confrontations that mark modern politics, and the racist tone that undergirds much of it, I suspect this Southwest Virginian would be disappointed in the miles his beloved commonwealth has yet to travel.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.