Harry Byrd, Jr: US senator who fought against desegregation

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The Independent Online

Harry Byrd Jr, who died on 30 July at the age of 98, was a Democrat-turned-independent who began his career as a staunch segregationist and preached fiscal restraint in Washington long before it became fashionable. Byrd served 17 years in the US Senate, replacing his powerful father, Harry Flood Byrd, a senator from 1933 until ill health forced him to retire in 1965.

In 1966, Byrd won a special election for the remaining years of his father's term. Switching from Democrat to independent, He won re-election in 1970 and 1976. As an independent, Byrd won more votes than the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. It was only the second time an independent had reached the Senate.

Byrd said he left the party after state Democrats required all candidates to sign a loyalty oath supporting all Democratic candidates, including the nominee for president two years later, George McGovern. Byrd said their political philosophies were too far apart to support McGovern.

Professor Larry Sabato said Byrd's move had had wide-reaching implications. "It was a harbinger of the decline of partisan identification that took place in the 1970s and 1980s all across the country," he said. "In Virginia, it helped bring conservatives from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party. Byrd first helped them stop voting Democrat. It was a half-step."

He made a career of preaching the value of fiscal restraint. He claimed Congress could balance the budget if it could hold annual spending increases to 3-5 per cent. He criticised President Reagan's military build-up as "giving the Pentagon the impression it has a blank check." When he retired in 1982, Byrd said he was leaving with regret that "Congress refuses to obey its own law which mandates a balanced budget."

The Byrds supported Virginia's stand against desegregation, including the decision to push "massive resistance" – even school closures – to fight the 1954 Supreme Court decision. In 1956 he called the ruling an "unwarranted usurpation of power" by the court. He said in 1982 that he had "personally hated" to see schools close, but even he didn't disavow massive resistance and suggested it had helped the state avoid racial violence.