In six-plus years writing a book about Virginia civil rights lawyers Oliver Hill and Spottswood Robinson, one of the puzzling small mysteries I came across was that Hill had supported conservative Democrat Mills Godwin Jr. in his victorious race over Republican Linwood Holton in the 1965 gubernatorial contest.
Yes, that Mills Godwin, the unapologetic champion in the Virginia Senate of Massive Resistance to school desegregation during critical years in the late 1950s. And that Linwood Holton, who in the early 1970s as the state’s first 20th-century Republican governor ushered in a new Southern political standard by enrolling his children in Richmond’s overwhelmingly black public schools.
How could it be that Oliver Hill, who forcefully and passionately fought the white power structure on behalf of black schoolchildren, so soon afterward aligned himself with his recent enemy? After all, a single year — not 30 or 20 or even 10 — separated the reopening of schools closed for five years in Prince Edward County and the 1965 gubernatorial election.
In the current political era, the more likely response toward Godwin of someone in Hill’s shoes might be a barrage of insults on Twitter and a vow to crush his career.
That improbable alliance resurfaced for me in the recent turmoil surrounding revelations that Virginia’s Democratic governor and attorney general (and who knows how many other sitting officeholders) participated during the 1980s in the repugnant practice known as blackface.
How would Hill regard the current moment? I can’t presume to know. Yet, my gut instinct is that he would have joined the scores of black officeholders and leaders calling on Gov. Ralph Northam — and, with less volume, Attorney General Mark Herring — to resign. Generous as Hill could be in assessing the human condition, he never hesitated to vent moral outrage when the racial hypocrisies and sins of the white governing class were laid bare.
Yet, what — if anything — does Hill’s ability to find common cause with so fierce an enemy as Godwin offer to the current moment?
I see three possible root motivations for Hill’s endorsement: personal, institutional, or pragmatic. We can rule out the first. There surely was no personal bond between Hill and Godwin, although each might have recognized a grudging kinship in the forceful, confident leadership style of the other. Otherwise, their personalities and priorities were light-years apart.
My guess is that the embrace reflected a combination of the latter two — Hill’s strong loyalty to the Democratic Party and his strategic understanding that Godwin would owe black Virginians much if they agreed not to defect to the campaign of the young, upstart lawyer from Roanoke. In later years, Hill and Holton — the father-in-law of Sen. Tim Kaine — became friends, sharing many views on race and politics. In 1965, however, the path to the spoils of victory lay far more assuredly through a Democratic coalition.
And those spoils, as Hill likely knew and might have demanded, were huge. Godwin went on to deliver up an astounding array of reforms benefiting ordinary Virginians: enactment of a sales tax, creation of the Virginia Community College system, and approval of a major bond issue to benefit higher education and mental health, among them.
And when in 1968 Godwin created a commission to revise the blatantly racist state Constitution of 1902, the appointees to the prestigious post included Oliver Hill. The once maligned outsider would, this time, monitor the reforming of Virginia’s foundational document from a seat of power.
As Virginia’s black citizens and their white allies move forward on the blackface scandal and Northam’s vow not to resign, they face several options. One path continues down the road of demanding the governor’s resignation, possibly shadowing his planned “reconciliation tour” with protest marches. Another recognizes the moment as an opportunity to demand that Virginia’s political leadership make good on a bold agenda for racial progress. Northam has offered to do as much.
Detonating a state law that forbids localities from taking down war monuments — including those glorifying the Civil War — would be a conspicuous place to start. The opportunities in education, health care, housing, voting rights, criminal justice, tax policy, and environmental justice are endless.
Wiser heads will sort through the alternatives. Not everyone will come out in the same place. Those who elect to seek common cause with Northam start with an advantage. The personal gulf between black Virginians and a pediatric neurologist who led the fight to extend the Affordable Care Act to 400,000 Virginians; for a decade did a regular, 120-mile round-trip commute to serve children — many of them African-American — at an Eastern Shore health clinic; and attends a predominantly African-American church and whose 1960s and ’70s childhood was unusually integrated for the era is far shorter than the boundless chasm that Oliver Hill and Mills Godwin bridged in 1965.