John Stewart Battle

John Battle, son of a Baptist minister, was born in New Bern, North Carolina and grew up in Petersburg, Virginia. He was graduated from the University of Virginia and from the University's School of Law in 1913 and began his practice in Charlottesville. He served two terms in the Virginia House of Delegates and was elected to the state Senate in 1933. Eventually he became chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. In 1949 Battle, a longtime Byrd Organization Democrat, was selected to run for governor. His nomination was by no means assured, since three challengers entered the primary race. One, Frances Pickens Miller, was a longtime Byrd foe and carried the anti-organization banner high overhead. Another, Horace Edwards presented a different voice, one more moderate and with some Organization backing. Edwards, mayor of Richmond from 1946 to 1948, offered new approaches to the state's fiscal policies and its pressing education and transportation needs. Edwards called for a sales tax and criticized the Byrd pay-as-you-go financial practices. Battle was barely able to hold off Miller's challenge, in part because Edwards cut into his base of support. Once in office Battle moved briskly to address some of the issues Edwards had raised, especially school financing. Battle's education program included outright state grants for school construction, a move that signaled progressive change from Virginia's old model of low-interest loans to localities. Battle's administration would only go so far, however, to meet the demands of the younger, urban delegates who were becoming known as the Young Turks. On one crucial proposal by Delegate Robert Whitehead to appropriate $1,000,000 for teacher pay, the Battle administration refused to support the measure and helped prevent its passage. Similarly, Battle supported and signed Harry F. Byrd, Jr.'s Tax Credit Act which required the state to return any surplus revenue in the general fund back to taxpayers rather than allow it to be used for new capital projects. On the segregation issue Battle articulated a conservative but flexible stand. He argued in 1950 that "there is no excuse or reason for . . . abolition of segregation in the public free schools." At the same time he considered it "inevitable" that black students be admitted to graduate schools in Virginia. Battle did not endorse the massive resistance laws or the school closing orders that his successors promoted, remained loyal to the national Democratic Party tickets in the 1950s, and served on the U.S. Civil Rights Commission from 1957 to 1959. Battle died April 9, 1972. (see Washington Post, April 10, 1972)