A Historical View of Progressive Voting Records

William B. Spong, Jr. campaigns along Norfolk's Granby St.

Neal V. Clark, Jr., The Virginia-Pilot

Spong's Record

William B. Spong Jr.'s Voting Record

Introduction:

William B. Spong, Jr. was a relatively quiet yet instrumental politician in Virginia. He graduated from the University of Virginia Law School and started his own law firm before entering Virginia politics as a Delegate in 1953.  He served as Virginia State Senator from 1956-1966 and in the U.S. Senate from 1966-1972. Historians site his 1966 Senate Victory against the incumbent, Senator A. Willis Robertson, as the critical juncture that accelerated the collapse of the Byrd political machine[1]. Others maintain that President Lyndon B. Johnson personally recruited Spong to challenge the 20-year incumbent and curtail Virginia’s opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While he played a role in school desegregation as the chairman of the Commission on Public Education from 1958-1962, his voting records and personal correspondence suggest that the Democratic Senator was more of a moderate reformer than progressive crusader.

Though historians credit Spong as a figure who helped break up Virginia’s political stagnation over national Civil Rights legislation, his policies erred on the side of conservatism. For example, during his time in the Virginia State Senate, Spong voted favor of the Interposition Resolution in 1956 which argued that states had a constitutional right to oppose federal legislation. Conservatives in Virginia revived the notion of interposition from James Madison’s writing in the late 18th century in what would become known as “Massive Resistance” (for more information see Massive Resistance: A Timeline).  The resolution represented a bellicose reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. This practice spread from Virginia to at least ten southern states until the Supreme Court deemed interposition unconstitutional in Cooper v. Aaron. However, “states’ rights” continues to be a prominent conservative argument today. 

Although he wanted to distance himself from the Byrd Organization, Spong found himself among the many votes that continued segregation in Virginia; perhaps, an indication of the power of the Byrd political machine. Over the course of his tenure in the Virginia State Senate, Spong voted for over a dozen policies that supported Massive Resistance. He supported the closing of public schools, and voted to bar the NAACP from pursing legal action against school segregation.

William B. Spong, Jr. represents a piece to a larger, more complex narrative of moderate Democrats in Virginia. After the evident failure of the Stanley Plan, Democrats capitalized on the opportunity to “preserve public schools” while keeping segregation intact. Voting records and legislative efforts such as the Perrow Commission indicate how moderates in the Virginia legislature took complicated, often conflicting stances toward Massive Resistance.

Jefferson Elementary School tables

Jefferson Elementary School enrollment by grades

Results of Stanford Achievement Test

Results of Stanford Achievement Test, administered in April, May 1956

The Perrow Commission:

In 1959, Mosby Perrow became chairman of the Virginia School Commission, bringing together a group of moderate democrats to oppose the Byrd Organization. The Perrow Commission was perceived as the legislative reaction to Massive Resistance; however, the goal of the commission was not racial equality and the integration of public schools, but rather segregation by a different name. The commission held that in the early 1960s “the best that can be devised at this time [is] to avoid integration and preserve our public schools”. In fact, the subtext within this legalese, which played out in the coming years, created a comprehensive plan to halt integration of public schools for as long as possible. Virginia legislators understood that Massive Resistance to federal integration orders would eventually be ruled unconstitutional, yet rather than face Federal government’s enforcement, the Perrow Commission set out recommendations that seemed to reverse Massive Resistance. The commission carefully re-crafted the Stanley Plan[2] and offered alternative methods of segregating school children through a new set of policies that transferred power to local governments. This gave local school boards and city councils to determine the fate of public schools. In Charlottesville, Norfolk, and Prince Edward, standardized tests, pupil placement, and “freedom-of-choice” plans kept black and white students segregated. Though a federal court struck down the Stanley Plan as unconstitutional in 1957, the Perrow Commission implemented many of the same strategies to segregate students with the additional provisions of pupil placement, compulsory attendance, and tuition grants.

In this way, the Perrow Commission, which was intended to curb the opposition to federal desegregation orders, revised and implemented the very same legislation that put Massive Resistance in place. In fact, legislators reinstituted the practice of pupil placement which could assign students to specific schools based on a range of different, often times vague and mutable criteria. Even though the pupil placement board was ruled unconstitutional in 1957[3], the Perrow Commission subtly reintroduced the provision and gave localities jurisdiction over enforcing segregation.

While the mantra of Massive Resistance was solely about white supremacy, segregation continued in Virginia under subtler legislative machinations. William B. Spong, Jr., a progressive Democrat heralded for his contributions to halt the political machine that advocated for Massive Resistance, still supported segregation in Virginia: “while I join the overwhelming sentiment of the people for continued segregated schools, I do not favor the abolition of our public school system without the people of this Commonwealth having an opportunity to vote." By principle, politicians like William B. Spong, Jr. opposed the racially explicit tactics of Massive Resistance, yet continued to implement its policies through the guise of preserving public schools. 

Conclusion:

As Spong went on to achieve one of the biggest upsets in Virginia political history, defeating the 20-year incumbent Senator A. Willis Robertson. This victory not only signaled the end of the Byrd Organization that advocated for Massive Resistance, but also solidified Spong’s role in history as an influential progressive Democrat. However, the larger narrative of Spong’s political career reveals the pressures, power, and influence of local and state legislatures. His voting record indicates the role moderate representatives played in upholding the practice of segregation. More broadly, legislation like the Perrow Commission, which continued to resist federal desegregation orders by subtler means, demonstrates the power of local governments to control, implement, and manage the lives and livelihoods of communities outside of the jurisdiction of the federal government.

Petition to the School Board of the City of Charlottesville to attend public school in Virginia

A petition from the families of school age children in Charlottesville, Virginia to integrate children and reorganize public school system

In the contemporary moment, local and state governments have curtailed many of the successes of the Civil Rights movement in a similar fashion by passing legislation that implements racially discriminatory policies through subtle, often locally enforced means. States’ rights continue to be powerful conservative argument that fuels local political action reminiscent of the Perrow Commission. While opposing federal laws is legislatively unconstitutional, the legacy of William B. Spong, Jr. and the Perrow Commission show that local power can dramatically influence the outcomes of federal civil rights legislation.


[1] See “Massive Resistance: An Overview” for more information on the political organization that dominated Virginia politics for close to four decades.

[2] The Stanley Plan was a piece of legislation comprised of 13 statues designed to ensure racial segregation continued in Virginia public schools despite the unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education

[3] In the early iterations of the Pupil Placement Plan in 1956, a three-member board had the power to determine which school students would attend. In 1960, the original three members of the Pupil Placement Board resigned. The Virginia General Assembly finally dismantled the Pupil Placement Board in 1966.

A Historical View of Progressive Voting Records