Virginia for All

From Jamestown to Jesse Jackson and Beyond

The colony at Jamestown, established in 1607, become the first permanent English colony to survive in what became the United States. The first decades in Jamestown’s history were marked by war waged against the indigenous people of the area as colonists tried to expand their territory and grab land to grow badly needed crops. 12 years after its founding, Jamestown imported the first African slaves. These slaves were used to take care of tobacco plants which were very labor intensive. Each plant was individually cared for, harvested and cured.

It was in Virginia that a particular type of slavery arose – radicalized chattel slavery.It was racialized in that it became a type of slavery that, overtime, was tied to people of African descent as well as some native peoples. Chattel meant that people who were slaves were treated as property to be bought and sold and whose children were born into slavery. There are various interpretations on how this arose. The most compelling is that the creation of racialized (that is, limited to people of African descent) slavery was a political response by the planter class to keep Black slaves separate from white slaves and indentured servants. Overtime an entire mythology was developed which justified the enslavement of Africans by creating beliefs about their sub-human character. In any case, over time a series of laws where enacted to codify slave laws.

If human history is seen as an ongoing struggle for freedom it is easy to understand the series of slave rebellions organized in Virginia. It takes little to imagine the horrors of life as property. From Gabriel to Nat Turner, slaves in Virginia planned and organized rebellions. It is this dynamic of a constant struggle for freedom that inspires Virginia New Majority today.

After the Civil War there was a brief period of bi-racial collaboration and the beginnings of wresting power away from Virginia’s planter elite. Women were still systematically excluded from voting but Black Reconstruction introduced after the Civil War was a period of rapid democratization: the electorate was expanded, public education rose, and the first public health departments were created. In Virginia, there was a particular populist response: the Readjuster Party which arose in the 1870’s. In many ways it was a response to the post-war crisis that was particular to Virginia. The Readjuster’s won some elections and essentially formed a Black and white coalition to try to write off (readjust) war debts to banks. They eventually split apart, largely along racial lines.

The People’s Party or Populist Movement represents another attempt for working people to come together and create a society that worked for them. It called for community or state banks to increase farmers’ and small business owners’ access to capital, a secret ballot, the popular election of Senators, government ownership of the railroads to reduce monopoly prices and a progressive income tax to redistribute wealth more equitably. This political alternative also fell victim to racism. One of its early leaders, Tom Watson, was running on a white supremacist platform by the 1900’s.

Despite these historic failures, there is much to learn from these early attempts to break free from corporate elite domination of Virginia and the country. First, our efforts to redistribute wealth or to create a safety net that provides for all are deeply rooted in Virginia’s history. Second, race is often the wedge or fulcrum that breaks up popular movements, and, critically, it is not Black people who have ‘flipped’ their politics or betrayed those movements. Third, efforts to democratize elections are as old as Virginia. In the 1800’s it meant moving to universal male voting or secret elections. In the 2010’s it means keeping the polls open, making it easier to vote absentee or allowing ex-offenders to vote. Fourth, absent from this early political history of Virginia is the half of all people denied the right to vote: women.

From the 1920’s through mid-1960’s, Harry Byrd, a descendant of one of the first families of colonial settlers in Virginia, built a political machine on the shoulders of the white planter class that dominated Virginia politics for many decades and through the Civil Rights era. His Democratic segregationist political machine formed a staunch opposition to the Civil Rights movement, and engineered the strategy of “Massive Resistance” to successfully limit the effects of the popular civil rights struggle in Virginia. Byrd’s best known victory came when he successfully shut down the Virginia school system to prevent the schools from being integrated in accordance with the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board.

Yet, there are two sides to every coin. In the1960s and 70s, Henry Howell, a Virginian politician who eventually became Lieutenant Governor and came with 15,000 votes of becoming Governor, represents a populist, pro-worker, pro-civil rights counterpoint to the dominant corporate, segregationist politics which dominated Virginia. The following citation from Wikipedia outlines his politics…”A fiery populist, Howell assailed Big Business, particularly banks, insurance companies, and monopolies. A favorite target was Dominion Virginia Power, then known as VEPCO, which Howell claimed stood for ‘Very Expensive Power Company.’ A supporter of civil rights for African Americans, Howell campaigned against massive resistance, was a major proponent of desegregation, and filed a successful lawsuit to abolish the state's poll tax. A believer in the right to organize, he often attempted to repeal Virginia's right-to-work law.” NVM is working to reclaim and build from this populist progressive history.

- Jon Liss

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