Here’s Looking at You George – Guest Post About George Rawlings By Scott Walker

Fellow Dems:

There’s an obit and an article in the Free Lance Star that I urge all of  to reflect on.

Check this:

Now, the subject of all of this, George Rawlings, was someone that everyone did not agree with, either in his poltics or his approach but Rawlings got us involved 45 years ago, back in the Kennedy – Johnson years.  He was part of a political movement that both brought us together and tore us apart.

He was called “crazy” or “brilliant” but he was like no one here before politically.  In acting with him or reacting to him, Virginia Dems are a lot different and a lot better than they were before.

There are still folks on our Democratic committees today who remember him both fondly and negatively but, by Jingo, he is remembered !  Most of you remember or have read about events in the 1960s; well, this is one local series of events that fits into that big picture.

And, all of this from a small town lawyer.

Here’s looking at you, George !

I sent out my note this morning because many of us (new to the region or, even, longer-time resdients) who are still active, may not even remember George Rawlings.

The obit gave good basics but, then again, there’s always more.  My view of George was from both a college student’s point of view and as an active Fred’burg Dem, once I had moved here in 1969.  By that time, he had already killed his giant and was fighting other dragons !

George was, indeed, a liberal by any definition.  That is, I don’t mean a Virginia liberal, which might even be less liberal than one from, say, Massachusetts !  As a young lawyer and prosecutor (and, I might add, member of the governmental and social establishment), he always seemed to care for the poor, downtrodden, and underdog.  In his early active years, that mean that he cared for and took cases in defense of people of color, regretably a rare thing in rural Virginia in the 1950s.  But, the times were that they were, and George stood out for all the correct reasons.

He must have read and understood that, by the time the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, “Voting” was the key and he actively registered black residents of the area not only in the City of Fredericksburg, but particluarly in neighboring Stafford and Spotsylvnaia Counties.  He not only registered them, he made sure they could and did vote, providing a sizeable voting base.

You see, in those times, the Virginia political establishment was known as the “Byrd Machine” led by Sen. Harry F. Byrd of the rural Shenandoah Valley locale, Clark County.  Byrd had been governor and then senator and had built up years of seniority and controled financial commitees in the U.S. Senate.  He also controlled who ran (and won) for governor and major state offices.  By having elections every year (which we still do in Virginia), by having a poll tax, and by contolling who registered (and who could vote), the Machine kept the vote down to a group they could predict and control.  This control filtered down to localities where local pols were part of the organization.  In his 1948 political analysis about politics in Southern states, Prof. V.O. Key leads off with Virginia and calls the “Byrd Machine” a political museum piece.  Of course, they were all Democrats,too.

George Rawlings rebelled personally and politically against that group, even though he was brought up in it.  By registering and working with black voters, Rawlings did something the Byrd people refused to do:  he had a power base among the poor, the black, the generally disenfranchised.  And, they loved him for it.

Mix into this the social and political upheaval of the 1960s, and you have a situation that was set to change.  Rawlings was elected to the state General Assembly and immediately alligned himself with the small but vocal liberal minority (mostly but not all Democrats) who were fighting the Byrd machine’s blantantly racist policies on government and, in particular, school integration.  He was a real pain to those guys.

Then came the real coup.

After the Kennedy assaination and Lyndon Johnson’s subsequent election in 1964, Johnson put Civil Rights legislation as his prime goal. However, under the system at the time, seniority and only seniority determined committee chairmanships.  This meant that virtually all House and Senate committee chairs were Southern Democrats who, with a few exceptions (Tennesseans Gore and Keefauver, for example) were committed to blocking any type of Civil Rights Legislation.

One of the most famous of these, was Virginia’s 8th District Congressman, Howard Smith.  (Not,by the way, the newsman of the similar name at the time !)  Smith, whose district stretched from Alexandria where he lived to this area and into King George County where he had a cattle farm.  If a Civil Rights bill was coming along through the legislative change, the Rules Committee (chaired by Smith) as its Chair, scheduled the bill for consideration and debate.  

Thus, the plan was, whenever the leadership assigned the bill to the Rules Committee, Smith became persona non presenta (or something!) and retreated to King George County to count cows.  No joke!  He would disappear for weeks at a time and the bill would languish.

Well, in the mid-60’s, George Rawlings challenged Smith in the Democratic Primary for the Congressional Nomination.  Smith, who was used to sailing to victory always selected “primary” as his method of renomination, no one would file against him, and — thus — he had a free ride for the nomination and forget Republicans in those days….he just breezed to re-election.

Smith did not take the challenge seriously.  Rawlings, and local supporters such as the always pleasant Tom Stearn in Stafford and a crew in Spotsy (I particularly remember Miss Lucy Samuels and, later, Jim Smith), as well helped by more liberal Mary Washington College faculty members, such as our Committee Member Emeritus, Lewis P. Fickett, ran a perfect campaign:  they identified their voters (including the “new”, heretofore invisible black voters), they got them to the polls and they beat Smith by 800 or so votes.  It was unbelieveable.

The feeling we had was similar to what we all felt this past November.  In other words, “We did it!”.

However, that was the high point.  George was defeated in the general election by William C. Scott, who went on to gain election as a Senator and to the designation as the “dumbest member of Congress”!

George and his allies gained control of the state Democratic Party but splits were appearing.  In 1969, there was a three-way Primary and later that year, for the first time since the 1860-70 Reconstruction Era, a Republican was elected Governor.

That man, Lynwood Holton, is one of the best officials we have ever had.  He was NOT a Republican as we know them today but one of the Virginia “Mountain and Valley Boys” who were always pitted against the old Byrd machine.  So, really, Holton and Rawlings had many of the same objectives.  To bring it full circle, Holton’s daughter is married to our current Democratic governor, Tim Kaine.  I am pleased have met the Holton’s over the years, and all of their kids are Democrats !! ! !

The circle continud though, in 1973, when the only way the Republicans could hang on to the Governor’s Mansion was to have a former Democratic governor, Mills Godwin, switch parties and run.  Another “Mountain Valley Boy”, John Dalton followed but we started coming back because in Dalton’s election year, 1977, we elected the Lt. Governor:  Chuck Robb ! ! !

But, let’s go back to George Rawlings..

Aided by the 1972 McGovern reforms nd created such consternation that the Old Guard became (“gasp”) Republicans.  The State Democratic Party fell apart and almost couldn’t elect the proverbial dog catcher.  Rawlings left the legistlature, ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970 (against Harry Byrd, Jr. — the son) and went on to various terms within the state party, including a long stint as Chair of the 8th Congressional District Democratic Committee.  He and his allies were elected to seats in the General Assembly and, most notably, elected a Lt. Governor, former state-Senator, who ran for Governor twice with George’s active support.

Throughout all of that, he maintained a law practice here in Fredericksburg in the former home / office that is in the 400 block of Amelia Street.  By the 1980s, I was serving some terms a Chair of the City Committee and I’d regularly stop by where he would test and probe to make sure I was OK, I think.

He always made state conventions interesting because George was never a shrinking violet — that being an old term for “shy” ! ! !  His sports coats were plaided and “loud” and he always wore bow ties and sported a full beard.  You HAD to notice him.

He eventually moved back here to Fredericksburg where he lived until his death this week.  His personal life was not perfect and had a hint of tragedy, to it.  Both of his sons died young and I always saw a sadness in his eyes that I attributed to that.  But, speaking of the eyes, they sparkled !

If you “google” George or check out Wikipedia, I don’t know that he would have many entries but, in those raucous days of the 1960s and 70s, he was a spark plug.

I’d be less than forthcoming if I didn’t say that I didn’t always agree with him.  But, like everyone on our side, you almost had to like him.  He was energetic and forceful and he was proud to be a Democrat.  If you didn’t really agree with him or get along, he did marginalize you but my situation never came to that, I don’t think ! ! !  I am aware of good, active Democrats, though, who only became active in Fredericksburg because George left and moved to Northern Virginia.  So, in some ways, he had some of the same effects of his early antagonist, the “Byrd Organization”.

Many of the tactics we’ve taken since are both positve and negative reactions to the “force” of George Rawlings.  We are definitely the more inclusive party because of him but we also lost a lot of “life force” at the time, because of him.

I suspect, however, that we are stronger for it.

And, for all of us who are old and for those of us who are new, I — for one — think it’s important to know about George Rawlings, one of the more interesting Democrats of the past 50 years and noteworthy to us because he was based here.  I must presume that, particularly in the local politically active black community there are similar feelings about the one-time young lawyer we all called “Georgie” !

I can end this (perhaps) too long written trip down memory lane the same way I did a shorter, and earlier one:

“Here’s looking at you, George” !

Thanks, everyone, for reading.

Scott Walker
— 1 of the 69,456,897 Sane Voters in November, 2008 —
Fredericksburg, VA

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