July 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the effective date of the current revised Constitution of Virginia, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex or national origin. Section 15 of its Bill of Rights guarantees every child in Virginia free public school education. And, tellingly, after 194 years, the “free election” promise of Article 6 of George Mason’s original Virginia Bill of Rights, has come true.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act 1965 and the Supreme Court ruling of 1966 declaring unconstitutional the Virginia voting tax initiated under the latest revision of the Constitution of Virginia, this discriminatory practice and several others introduced in the 1902 document did not find their place in the new constitution. In addition, the new constitution incorporated an electoral framework, Article II, which over the past 50 years has resulted in exponentially higher voter turnout in Virginia elections, without any hint of fraud.
The Executive Director of the 1968 Commission on the Revision of the Constitution of Virginia, appointed by Governor Mills E. Godwin, who laid the groundwork for the 1970 revision, was UVa AE Dick Howard Professor of Constitutional Law. Governor A. Linwood Holton also appointed him lead the campaign to educate the electorate of Virginia on the merits of changing the organic law of Virginia after the General Assembly has reviewed and amended the work of the commission. It was, in effect, the chief architect and seller of the document.
In the Spring 2021 edition of the Law Schools Quarterly, Howard described the need for a review:
“(In 1970) Virginia itself was changing. Largely rural in 1902, Virginia urbanized rapidly. Long under the influence of the Byrd Machine [the rural political machine led by former governor and U.S. Senator Harry F. Byrd, a conservative Democrat], Virginia became a two-party state. The poll had been declared unconstitutional. Massive resistance to school desegregation led to a Supreme Court ruling ordering Prince Edward County to reopen its schools. The constitutional shoe paved in 1902 no longer corresponds to the Commonwealth.
This 1902 shoe successfully eliminated 90% of the black vote after its adoption, and unintentionally, 50% of the white vote – mostly poor rural farmers. The delegates to the 1902 convention made no secret of their intentions. As Carter Glass of Lynchburg put it, the goal was “… (to) cut off four-fifths of black voters from the existing electorate.” This was the object of this Convention.
And, when asked if the reduction in the votes of black Virginians would come from fraud or discrimination, he proclaimed:
“By fraud, no: by discrimination, yes. But it will be discrimination in the letter of the law, and not in violation of the law. “
In order to accomplish a 1970 revision of Virginia’s Organic Law and lay the groundwork for its indiscriminate future, Professor Howard faced two daunting tasks: first, to make sure Byrd’s machinists understand that trying to bypass the 14th and 15th Amendments by employing a sharp drafting strategy such as 1902 was not an option in light of historic US Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s and 1960s, with some striking down specific provisions of the constitution. 1902. Second, and perhaps more critically, persuade black Virginians. They had no reason to trust another document, written mostly by powerful white men, that their future voting rights and education rights would be protected under the guise of the new constitution.
Professor Howard named the organization promoting the adoption of the new revised Constitution “Virginians for the Constitution”. He selected campaign staff to disseminate information about the new constitution and present the case for its adoption.
Other than the campaign press secretary, all of the staff were either lawyers or law students with the exception of Sammy Redd Sr. of Martinsville, a senior fellow at Virginia State University and the sole black member of staff. He was also the only Vietnam veteran.
Howard appointed Sammy “to work with minority groups in the countryside”. This mainly meant that Sammy had visited HBCUs, churches, election league organizations, and civic groups all over Virginia. He spent considerable time in Southside Virginia, where resistance from white voters to the new revised constitution was strong. Black Virginians in this part of the state needed to understand the dawn of the new day with the new constitution. It was one of Sammy’s tasks, and he rose to the challenge.
Sammy had caught Howard’s attention at the 1969 special session of the Virginia General Assembly, when that body considered the commission’s report. on constitutional revision. The committee did not recommend lowering the voting age to 18. Sammy was one of the student activists who pressured the assembly to pass an amendment for electorate review to lower the voting age to 18. The effort failed with a voice in the Virginia Senate, but not because of lack of effort on Sammy’s part.
His passionate advocacy before the Senate Elections and Privileges Committee garnered attention in nearly every Virginia newspaper. He told the committee about a friend back in Vietnam who wanted to vote. This friend never got the chance, Sammy said: “He was old enough to die but not old enough to vote.”
Commentators and debate watchers at the time believed Sammy had changed his mind. It has undoubtedly touched a few hearts.
Sammy brought the same passion to his work for Virginians for the Constitution. And her effort is part of the legacy of the revised constitution of 1970: she slammed the door on Jim Crow. Hopefully it never opens again.