Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Political Campaign

BOND: You spoke a few minutes ago about Virginia values and respect for the law. And It is true to an outsider looking on that there is a kind of gentility in Virginia and a kind of moderation in most race relations that you wouldn't find, say, in North Carolina or South Carolina, states further South. At the same time, there seems to be a relatively large percentage of pretty conservative black figures and populations in Virginia. We look at the most recent election, this 17, 19 percent vote for the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, former Governor George Allen. What's the basis of this? Why -- ?

MARSH: I think it's an historical remnant of the kind of population we had in Richmond. Richmond was the center of African American activity at one point. We had the largest group of black business people in the South, the first -- the oldest African American bank, the oldest insurance company. In fact, they're still there, or their successor organizations. Maggie Walker did a lot to establish business. We had a large black middle class. And -- because it goes back to the slave trade, because Richmond was a focus in the slave trade. And other than New Orleans most slaves came in through Richmond and were bred and exported throughout the South. So, you had developed there a group of blacks who were sort of accepted as a part of the system. And so that carried on, I think, and contributed to some of this conservatism that you find in moderation among African Americans there. I had to deal with that when I got ready to run for public office. The black organization that had stimulated the elimination of the poll tax and encouraged blacks to vote --

BOND: The Crusade for Voters.

MARSH: -- the Crusade for Voters, they said that they have two blacks on the ticket. That's enough. They didn't want me to run. In fact, I read the editorial by the President of Crusade in the paper saying that we don't need any more blacks, and that's when I really decided to run. So another example was when they've always hired poll workers at $50 a day to work the polls. They decided that for the first time they weren't going to hire poll workers. And of course, the Richmond Forward organization were paying poll workers $75. So I realized that that money meant so much to people that the voters would go to these people that they always go to and vote for the Richmond Forward ticket if I didn't have poll workers. So I went to the bank and borrowed $3,000 and hired the experienced people as my poll workers. And I invited the Crusade leadership to come to my mass meeting the night before. And when they got there I had people worked up to a white heat. They were fired up. They walked into the room and saw the fire, determination that was there. And they realized then that I was going to get elected. But I did that so they would understand what was going on. And the next day, I swept into office. Then I went to the Crusade and praised them for endorsing me and for their support. So -- and from that point on I had no problem with them because, you know, I protected them by saying you deserve credit for this victory. I never exposed that they were really trying to get me defeated.

And there was another group that was a tool and a Byrd machine. They endorsed my opponents and didn't endorse me. So I went to their next meeting and thanked them for their support. And everybody looked around. I said, "I know you didn't fully endorse me, but many of you in here worked to get me elected and I really appreciate it. I couldn't have been elected without you." Well, the next year when the Byrd machine organization came and told them, "Don't endorse him," and they said, "Get the heck out of here. You crazy." From that point on they loved me.

BOND: But, you know, this history you've been telling us suggests that there's a long tradition, at least going back thirty or more years of white political interests recognizing that black political interests are there to be manipulated, worked with, cooperated with, opposed, that white political interests in Richmond at least and in Virginia generally – you talk about the Byrd machine creating this black group. Where does that notion come from? You don't see that further South, or you didn't see that further South.

MARSH: The sophistication of the Byrd machine was one of the most diabolical political entities in the history of mankind. The pay as you go philosophy -- and they found ways of perpetuating themselves in power. So as black political strains began to emerge they adopted their tactics to take that into account.

BOND: To co-op it if they could.

MARSH: Co-op it if they could.

BOND: And you think it's their sophistication as opposed to less sophisticated elements in the white political structure. In Georgia, I cannot imagine this having happened in the early 1960s. It just would not have happened. With some rare exceptions there was no black/white political cooperation except in Atlanta, not in the state at all. It's just a remarkable look at this state, which is so different from all the other states of the region.

MARSH: Yeah. I think it has to do with the historical remnant in Virginia, what happened in Virginia and the recognition of some white people in the city and in the state that this is a smart thing to do.