Byrd Organization

The Byrd Organization was the loose political bloc run by U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd from the time of his governorship in 1926 to his retirement from the Senate in 1965. The Organization members often spoke of it as nothing more than a confederation of like-minded individuals, but outsiders and observers credited it with great political power in Virginia. The Organization used local court house clerks and judges as the base of its powerful presence across the Commonwealth and manipulated the State Compensation Board to cement these relationships and discipline outliers when necessary. The basic tenets of the Organization were to keep state services and governmental services in general on what Harry F. Byrd called a "pay as you go" basis and to resist the growth of labor unions, the influence of communists, and the demands of African-Americans. Conservative in outlook, the Byrd politicians were deemed "tradesman" not statesman by political scientist V. O. Key in his path breaking study of Southern politics in 1949. Changes swept across Virginia after World War II, as black Virginians organized to claim a voice in politics and government, as rural Virginians moved out of Southside and Piedmont counties into burgeoning suburbs around Washington, Richmond, and Norfolk, and as the political landscape of the Republican and Democratic national parties shifted after 1948. Byrd's Organization adopted conservative positions on all these changes and in the 1950s faced serious challenges to its hold on power. For its tight grip on political power the Organization depended on the effective elimination of large numbers of black and white voters and on a moribund Republican opposition. Virginia's tiny total electorate meant that the Byrd men had to satisfy only a fraction of Virginians in order to maintain power. As voting practices changed in the 1950s and as the 1965 Voting Rights Act took effect later, the Byrd Organization weakened and collapsed. Its deep conservativism, however, did not disappear among many Virginians, and it continued after the 1960s in a different form, finding expression in Independent candidates and eventually in a Republican resurgence in the Commonwealth.