The Byrd Machine in Virginia: The Rise and Fall of a Conservative Political Organization

Time Period
1877 to 1924
1925 to Today
Media Type
Politics & Government
Michael Lee Pope

On January 19, 2023, author and journalist Michael Lee Pope traced the history of Harry Byrd’s conservative political organization, which ran Virginia politics for more than half a century.

The story of the Byrd Machine is one that begins after the Civil War when Senator William Mahone created the first political machine with support from Black voters and Black elected officials. That was followed by a second political machine created by Senator Thomas Staples Martin to crush the progressive movement and implement Jim Crow racism. That was the environment when a young state senator named Harry Byrd campaigned for governor and launched his own machine, which would wield power and influence over everything from who got the nod to be governor to how the state maintained racial segregation. The Byrd organization operated with a pathological hatred of debt spending, crushing the power of labor unions, and forcing its will on Black school children protesting separate and unequal facilities. The turning point came during massive resistance, a move to close public schools rather than integrate them. Michael Lee Pope is an award-winning journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News, Northern Virginia magazine, and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of several books, including Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C.; Shotgun Justice: One Prosecutor's Crusade Against Crime & Corruption in Alexandria & Arlington; Wicked Northern Virginia; and, most recently, The Byrd Machine in Virginia: The Rise and Fall of a Conservative Political Organization.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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