Carry Me Back to New Virginny: From Jim Crow to Progressive Stronghold?

Sometimes my thoughts carry me back to ol’ Virginny, the state where I was born, as go the lyrics to the old song. But just as Virginia dropped that racist ditty as its anthem 24 years ago, so today the Commonwealth not only is burying its Jim Crow past but emerging as a fertile ground for progressive change.

It wasn’t that long ago — some four and a half decades, and only a decade after the passage of the Voting Rights Act — that I cut my teeth as an activist in Virginia politics. This was only a decade past the Voting Rights Act that was intended to fully enfranchise Black voters (but which, as we know, still failed to stamp out racist voter suppression). The state had emerged from the openly racist era of the Harry F. Byrd political machine but its politics were still stuck in a sort of genteel White supremacy. The White revolt against the Great Society’s embrace of civil rights had trampled the old Jim Crow Democratic Party order in the rush to a newly dominant Republican Party, while a growing Black political presence along with liberal Whites struggled to break a conservative stranglehold on state government. After a few years of battling in this political climate I left in search of more compatible political waters, a growing tendency across the country.

Now, in 2021, Virginia is a much-changed state. It is no longer Southern in any real sense but is rather being absorbed by a blue wave that foretells growing Democratic Party strength and an opening for progressive politics from Virginia to Florida.

Once could be forgiven this winter for mistaking Richmond for a misplaced Berkeley, California. There, the General Assembly, which became fully controlled by Democrats after the 2019 election, has moved to abolish the death penalty and legalize marijuana, actions that not long ago would have been considered harbingers of the arrival of communism. The Assembly completed passage of the death penalty bill on February 22, and once Gov. Ralph Northam signs it (as he is expected to do) the Old Dominion will be the first Southern state to renounce executions.

This follows a landmark 2020 session in which the state enacted new gun controls, removed restrictions on abortion, made voting easier and passed legislation banning discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identify. A symbol of Virginia’s transformation is a member of its General Assembly — Delegate Lee Carter, a self-identified socialist who has announced his candidacy for governor. Another is Delegate Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person to be elected and serve in any US state legislature.

The past year also marked the state’s long-overdue reckoning with its Jim Crow past in the removal of statues of Confederate figures. In a recent visit to Richmond I toured the empty plinths of former monuments to defenders of slavery as well as the still-standing one to Robert E. Lee, now bathed in anti-racist graffiti and, as long as it stands (which might not be for long), no longer a statement of white supremacism but a symbol of welcome changes in the city and state.

Virginia’s march into a new era was a long time coming, but it looks like the changes are here to stay. They are part of an evolution in a part of the old Confederacy that foretells growing prosperity for the Democratic Party nationally and with it fertile new ground for progressive social change.

Starting in the late 1960s the line of demarcation in the East between Republican and Democratic strongholds was the Potomac River, with blue Maryland and even more blue DC to the north and Virginia still a captive of old-South politics despite liberal enclaves in Northern Virginia and Richmond city proper. To the south of Virginia the spirit of Old Dixie reigned, characterized by racial polarization with Whites controlling state politics despite localized Black gains made possible by the Voting Rights Act.

But the arc of Southern history, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., finally bent toward justice. A driving factor was the in-migration to the coastal states, outsiders drawn to the Atlantic South because of its increasingly dynamic economy, modest cost of living, warm climate and, in some states, vibrant university systems. Florida, with its heavy influx of retirees from the Northeast and Midwest, was the first domino to totter, a once reliably red state turned purple as the new residents brought their politics with them. Virginia fell into the Democratic presidential column in 2008 for the first time since 1964, and after a Republican sweep of statewide offices in 2009 the GOP never won another state-level election. In a little over a decade Virginia had switched from deep red to Union blue.

If arch-segregationists Byrd and North Carolina’s onetime Senator Jesse Helms had been thinking ahead, they might have had reservations about their states building some of the country’s leading state university systems, just as those states (especially Virginia) underfunded K-12 education in the olden days. The universities drew professors and students from all over, and an educated mind tends to be a liberal mind. North Carolina has hovered in the purple zone since Obama’s first election.

And then there is Georgia, which has changed colors faster than a panicked chameleon. Black political power in the state, especially in rapidly growing Atlanta, was held at bay for years by blatant voter suppression, most recently employed by the state Republican party to steal the 2018 gubernatorial election from Stacey Abrams. Lest we regard Georgia Governor Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger as heroes for resisting Donald Trump’s overt effort to steal the state’s presidential vote, we must remember that they were the architects of this latter-day Jim Crow effort to keep Blacks from the polls. But revenge came in the form of a massive voter registration and mobilization effort headed by Abrams that not only carried the presidential vote for Joe Biden but also flipped the state’s two Senate seats from Republican to Democrat.

South Carolina long seemed the outlier of the coastal South, remaining firmly in conservative White control and keeping Black political empowerment at bay while the states all around it evolved. But the competitive campaign of Jaime Harrison, an African American Democrat, against entrenched Republican and Trumpster Lindsey Graham could be a harbinger of change even in that bastion of Dixie heritage.

As for the rest of the old Confederacy, Texas has the best potential to flip in the near future. With its growing population of newcomers and immigrants as well as natives responding to the message of progressives such as former agriculture commissioner and left agitator Jim Hightower, a purple Texas with its 38 electoral votes would pose a mortal threat to any Republican presidential candidacy. The interior Southern states — especially Mississippi and Alabama — with their harsher racial legacies and weaker economies haven’t drawn the in-migration of other states and remain mired in White-dominated racial politics at the state level. But no place is immune to change.

But as all socialists know, a Democratic victory is not necessarily a progressive victory.  The political right, and especially the White-supremacist right, remains a potent force, especially in the South. In Virginia as in most of the South, the Democratic Party continues to be largely wedded to corporate influence in its economic policy — as seen under Virginia’s centrist Democratic governors Northam and Terry McAuliffe — even as it moves to the left on social policy, as evidenced in the state’s current legislative agenda.  

The insurrection against the US Capitol was only the latest in a series of eruptions of White grievance against the erosion of racial privilege that is especially evident in the South. That incident and the deadly 2017 racist march in Charlottesville bookend an era of overt racial rage stirred by the words and actions of Donald Trump. The growing anger and tendencies to violence among the Trump wing of the Republican Party are a reaction to this rise in Black political influence — a reaction that, one hopes, represents that movement’s death throes, like those of a fatally wounded wild animal.

Trump’s acquittal in the latest impeachment trial shows that he still largely controls the Republican Party, although, the 10 votes for impeachment and seven for conviction by Republicans as well as the never-Trump Lincoln Project shows that a dissident faction isn’t going away. While the GOP engages in a civil war for control of the party, progressives can seize the moment to push the Democrats in the direction of true social change in the South and elsewhere. Black empowerment and reforms in social policy are welcome, but the left must move beyond this to press the newly ascendant southern Democrats to embrace real change, including Medicare for all, a universal $15 minimum wage, the Green New Deal, DC Statehood and an anti-racist criminal-justice system.

DSA can play a major role in the radicalization of the South, as the organization boasts chapters in every former Confederate state — six of them in Virginia, including the Northern Virginia branch of Metro DC DSA.

To end by quoting another song, “the times they are a-changin’” — and that change is increasingly coming to the South. Virginia is only the tip of the spear. In the lifetimes of many of us, the South might finally bury the legacy of the Confederacy for good.

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