Linwood Holton held his head high and smiled as he walked forward into a future more hopeful than the one he left behind.
At his side, his oldest daughter Tayloe mirrored his smile with one of her own. The photo that captured those smiles was taken Aug. 31, 1970, while Holton, Virginia’s first Republican governor since the days of Reconstruction, accompanied Tayloe as she prepared for her first day attending a mostly Black high school in Richmond.
Seven years earlier, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a Democrat, stood in a high school entrance and made a show of preventing two Black students from entering, following up on the promise in his inaugural speech, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”
Holton’s choice sent the opposite message, all across the country. The photograph depicting the short yet monumental walk he and his daughter took appeared the next day on the front page of The New York Times.
Holton, too, had made a promise in his inaugural address. “The era of defiance is behind us,” he said. “Let our goal in Virginia be an aristocracy of ability, regardless of race, color or creed.”
His action set him apart from the likes of Wallace and signaled that Virginia would no longer fight the federal court orders ending segregation in public schools, bringing the hateful, racist policy of Massive Resistance to an end.
“It was something I knew was right at the time,” he’d later tell The Roanoke Times.
One of his predecessors in the governor’s office, Colgate Darden, called Holton’s gesture and the photo that resulted “the most significant happening in this Commonwealth in my lifetime.”
Holton’s current successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, also understands the power of what Holton did. Honoring the memory of the 98-year-old statesman, who died last week, Northam wrote, “If you want to know what American strength looks like, look at the famous photographs of Governor Holton — smiling, as he walked his children to Richmond’s public schools during the tensest moments of desegregation.”
For that moment alone, Holton will be celebrated in history books as a paragon for the good.
Yet there was much more to Holton than that enduring shutter-click instant.
He came to understand the destructive forces of prejudice as he grew up in Big Stone Gap and saw the treatment Appalachians sometimes received.
As an attorney in Roanoke, he won his first election in 1952, to the post of the city’s Republican Party chairman, at a time when Democrats enforced segregation and Republicans took progressive positions on race.
In 1955 and 1957, Holton ran for House of Delegates, and lost. In 1965, he ran for governor, and lost. He did not give up.
In 1969, with a coalition of Black and working class white residents behind him, Holton won a narrow victory over Democrat William C. Battle and ushered in Virginia’s era of two-party government.
Holton worked to end segregation throughout his term. Not only were some of his appointees Black, he integrated state agencies, including the initially resistant state police.
His significance in bringing about these earth-moving social changes tends to drown out his more nut-and-bolts achievements. His shakeup of the State Water Control Board led to the construction of sewage treatment plants and transformed Smith Mountain Lake from a filthy reservoir to the gorgeous jewel it remains today.
Holton would serve in the Nixon administration, and grow estranged from the Republican Party as a result of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” that courted the segregationist sympathizers Holton had worked to defeat. The courage of his convictions eventually rendered a man without a party.
At the urging of Councilman Bill Bespitch, Roanoke honored Holton’s achievements in 2017, dedicating the urban green space at 106 Franklin Road S.E. downtown as Holton Plaza.
Holton deserves more, and this country needs more politicians like Holton. While many of that class say and do what’s expedient to stay in office, Holton genuinely was a uniter, not a divider.
This originally ran in The Roanoke Times. Editorials shared from other newspapers are offered in an effort to disseminate additional opinion and information.