Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Career: Political Career

BOND: Now, you talked a moment ago about Virginia values. To what degree are you a product of Virginia? To what degree do you reflect Virginia?

MARSH: I think each person is product of all experiences they've had. And I find myself being very deferential to people who are older than I am, to people in authority and very polite to people. I can't imagine young lawyers coming out of law school as they do now and the judge asks them a question and they'll say "yeah" or "yes." I mean, intuitively I say, "Yes, sir," to a judge because that's what a lawyer's supposed to do. I've been conditioned to honor my word. That's something that Virginians pride themselves on. You don't need a contract. If you give your word then you live and die by that word. And that's something that you do in Virginia. So -- and I think those kind of things -- and there are exceptions, of course.

BOND: Surely.

MARSH: There's treachery, always.

BOND: Yes.

MARSH: But I remember we had a discussion over the bonds. We used to put the full faith and credit of the city up to get bonds for building highways. The city attorney said, "There's no legal way that that can be enforced." I said, "You don't need" -- and I think that was mayor at the time – I said, "You don't need a legal way to enforce it." I said, "We put our name behind it. We're going to stand behind these bonds." That's the way we do things here. That's the way you're brought up. So that influences your thinking. It helps me now in the Senate because the Senate is a collegial body, and even though it's controlled by Republicans you have friends on the other side who respect you because you keep your word.

BOND: Now, you become the mayor in 1977.

MARSH: Right.

BOND: By that time you'd been on the council ten years, seven years as Vice Mayor. But there's a period when the same council stays in office longer than it might have done. This is a kind of complicated story. But take us through this story. How does all this happen?

MARSH: Well, we have two-year terms. And so on the eve of the election in 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States enjoins the Council election. So instead of going from '70 to '72 that council stayed in office until '77, until the litigation was over. The litigation was necessitated because the Voting Rights Act required that any change in procedure has to be approved and cleared by the Justice Department. When they annexed that change had not been --

BOND: And the annexation involved what?

MARSH: Well, in Virginia the way the state provides for cities to survive is to expand into surrounding counties and recapture some of the growth that it has spawned. So that's the traditional way. We have thirty-six cities and a hundred counties. The suburbs are growing around the cities. Well, what the legislature did was they realized they couldn't get a constitutional amendment, so they put a moratorium on annexations. Before that occurred, the city filed a legitimate annexation against Chesterfield. That procedure was winding its way through the courts. The city would have gained a lot of taxable material, taxable assets. But if they had waited until the end, the city -- another council election would have ensued, and my team would have won which means we could have stopped annexation. We could have turned it down. They thought that's what we were going to do. Only the hairdresser knows for sure what we would have done. But anyway, they got together -- the mayor and majority faction of council -- and compromised the annexation with the surrounding county and suddenly, quickly so that it would be effective by December 31st.

BOND: And the affect of the annexation is that the white population of Richmond expands.

MARSH: There wouldn't have been anything wrong with that if they'd done it lawfully. But when they compromised it, the mayor had a big mouth, and he told a white member of council who's a member of my team that "We gotta do this to keep the niggers from taking over the city. We don't want another Washington, D.C." He also told that to people at a ball game. He told it to a lot of people, the white people. I guess he figured that "we're all white, we're gonna stick together." But they told it. So when the court case came up, that evidence was before the federal court. That the motive for annexation was to keep blacks from exerting influence in the city. So the federal court in the District of Columbia said, "Well, wait a minute. This is illegal motive. The annexation was proper but the settlement, the premature settlement, was for racial reasons. So you have to give the territory back or go to a district system." So, the city didn't want to give the territory back because that would have had the same effect. They would then have to stand election from the old city which means blacks would have taken over. So they decided to go for the district system. So we – they approved a district plan that both sides agreed on for nine districts. And we won five of the nine. Of course, I'd been a leader since the first day of council. I was a logical choice for mayor, and Richmond had its first black mayor.