Today is the birthday of Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr., the first Black American elected to the Virginia Assembly since reconstruction. Today is his 98th birthday.
Given what else was going on in Richmond and in Virginia at the time, that election was an astonishing feat. And yet, not. Not surprising, if you know Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr., and if you know his political philosophy.
He is a man who believes in building a voting organizations from the ground up.
He believes that the school board, the county board, and the city council elections are just as important as the races for the General Assembly, the US Congress and the Presidency.
He believes that the party membership should be grown by organizing on ground. That the voter registration connects a person with their political environment.
He believes all politics is local.
He believes that all districts should have locals running to provide representation. By competing in all races, one provides representation to people living in that area. Winning or losing is not the most important issue. Reaching out to voters is much more important, and representing them while running.
He is adamant that voting is a right. Not a privilege.
He believes that we, the people, are the true change makers because we vote for the govt. we want.
Dr. Reid Sr. is also fond of that Lincoln quote — govt of the people, by the people and for the people. He quotes it to make a point — our govt is ours. It belongs to the us, the people. However, we seem to forget that bit about “by the people.” We are the shapers of our politics and government. If we cannot turn out to vote, it is no longer “of” or “for” or "by” the people. In not turning out, we are ceding it to the tyrants and freaks.
If we Democrats organized and won the School Boards, County Boards, City Councils and the State Legislature, then the US Congress and the Presidency is a easier jump. He also believes that the differences between Right and Left is not as important because all people like to be asked for their vote, and all voters are concerned about local issues of inclusion and representation. The most important thing is to organize and turn out — locally. Because our votes DO matter. They do, because we all want representation in our government.
While politics and social movements have changed in America, things have also remained the same:
Growing up in Richmond’s Jackson Ward community, Reid was well aware of redlining and boundaries.
“We knew our limitations as kids,” he says. “Don’t argue with police, be careful not to touch anything in department stores. It was a Jim Crow society. Streetcar conductors had police authority. We were told to obey.”
As far as Reid is concerned, many of those rules still apply today.
“Things haven’t changed that much,” he says.
Reid’s activism mirrored the work of his parents, both members of the NAACP who often traveled to the civil rights organization’s meetings in New York and other cities. Upon returning to Richmond, Reid’s father, Leon, a dentist, pushed his patients and others to join the NAACP. His mother was an administrative volunteer for the Richmond chapter of the organization.
In talking to Dr. Reid Sr., I concluded that his firm belief in America and it’s experiment with freedom comes from his heart. He has one of the strongest political heart of anyone else that I’ve ever talked with. Because for him, it’s not simply in the believing. He’s been able to translate it into action. He’s found a way and he did it in a time when the doing was dangerous. And he has worked with a new generation of candidates running for office — in Virginia, to pass on to them his knowledge of building their campaigns from the ground.
That’s taking mentorship to a whole other level.
Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr. was born and raised in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. When he was a child, his neighbor was the famous banker Maggie L. Walker. That stretch of homes now has it’s own historical marker.
To me, a late comer to Virginia politics, Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr. is synonymous with Virginia politics. He was the first Black man elected into the Virginia Statehouse in 1967 (since reconstruction). However, he began working for the people’s right to a free and fair election in 1955. Dr. Ferguson Reid ran as a Democrat, when he won in the waning days of the Byrd machine.
Did you know that it — the Democratic Party — was also the party of Harry F. Byrd, who led a fierce resistance to desegregation after Brown V. The Board of Education?
Did you know that in Virginia, Democrats were, back then, also the party of the Byrd machine? They were anti unionists and anti-integration.
I bring up that peculiar conjunction because Dr. Ferguson Reid Sr. is very important to me, personally, for my political education. While I had a reasonable education in American history, Dr. Reid Sr. took it to a new level whenever I had the privilege of conversing with him. You see, he had not only lived it, but he had supported organizations and pushed forward with the integrationist momentum. His election to the Virginia Assembly smoothed the pathway for Douglas Wilder and, later, for Barack Obama.
Talking to him led me to look into the history of the state I have lived in for more than two decades.
The more I looked, the more amazing Dr. Reid Sr. appeared to be. He was a political activist in the time of Brown v. Board of Education. He was a political activist in the waning years of the Byrd machine. He was a political activist at the time of Loving v. Virginia, he was a political activist in the time of pol taxes and literacy tests. This was the era of ballot stuffing, and the Ku Klux Klan was dangerous and active. Remember this was in Richmond, Virginia, the Capitol of the Confederacy.
Despite how his country saw him, a Black man, Dr. William Ferguson Reid Sr. served in the US Navy as a surgeon, in Korean war. On returning to Richmond, he joined the NAACP:
Dr. Reid joined the Virginia NAACP’s voter registration committee, and worked to educate black Virginians on the state’s secretive voting procedures and requirements. This drew the ire of Virgina Senator Harry Byrd Sr. and other Democrats, who according to Reid Jr. conspired to “put the NAACP out of business” by introducing legislation demanding a membership list from the organization, putting members’ jobs and lives at risk in an area with an active KKK syndicate. Predictably, NAACP membership plummeted.
To take heat off the NAACP, the voter registration committee disbanded and the members formed a new organization: The Richmond Crusade for Voters. Led by Dr. Reid, Dr. William S. Thornton, and John M. Brooks, the organization helped create independent civic groups in 28 precincts in Richmond where the black population was large enough to tip the vote. Crusade for Voters provided training to each civic group, which conducted voter registration and education. The concept was so successful it was expanded statewide.
After ten years of dedicated effort, the black vote in Virginia grew large enough for Reid to run for state assembly. He narrowly lost his first attempt, in 1965, but was elected two years later. He served three terms, representing a portion of Richmond, the former capital city of the Confederacy.
Dr. Reid Sr’s. activism began in 1955. He won his election in 1967. Eleven years before that election, he co-founded the Richmond Crusade for Voters. The Crusade was established to subvert the demands by the Virginia Legislature for the membership list of the NAACP.
The Richmond Crusade turned out to be a potent force in nurturing Black voters and politicians in Richmond and Virginia:
Fergie co-founded the Richmond Crusade for Voters to register and mobilize black voters during massive resistance. Crusade helped guide a Black political maturation that culminated with the election of the first Black majority on Richmond City Council, which picked Henry L. Marsh III as the city’s first black mayor in 1977.
And it’s still active —
Founded in 1956, the crusade is one of the oldest groups in the nation focused on voter registration and voting by African Americans. It grew out of an interracial group in Richmond called the Committee to Save Public Schools that formed to oppose the Southern Manifesto, promoted by U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia, which was signed by more than 100 Southern congressmen. Byrd’s effort was in direct response to the 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court that banned segregation in the nation’s public schools.
In 1956, Byrd called for what came to be known as Massive Resistance, a group of laws intended to prevent integration of public schools. A key law in the group allowed Virginia government to cut off funds and close any school that attempted to integrate. Despite opposition from disparate groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Committee to Save Public Schools, the measure passed a statewide referendum by about a 4 - 1 margin.
Stung by the disappointing defeat -- Black voter turnout in Richmond was less than 50% of approximately 8,500 blacks then registered -- three Richmond residents began meeting daily at the old Slaughter’s Hotel, a popular gathering place for Black Richmonders in Jackson Ward. Those strategy sessions with Dr. William Ferguson “Fergie” Reid, John Mitchell Brooks and Dr. William S. Thornton resulted in the birth of the Richmond Crusade for Voters.
That organization turned out to be resilient in standing up for the voters by empowering them — by educating them on the power of their vote, encouraging and practically supporting people to vote while subverting and defying the poll tax, the literacy tests, empowering the Black community by educating them to defy the Byrd machine, as it pushed for Massive Resistance.
Dr. Reid lived through a time in the history of this country that was fulcrum from which huge changes emerged. And he was one of the leaders on the ground and an activist, fomenting change locally.
One could say, with all honesty, Dr. Reid Sr. was an amplifier of change locally, which then helped bring further change downstream.
And when he was 90, his friends gathered and established 90for90, an organization that registers voters and helps candidates organize. When someone joins a campaign, they are asked to register 90 voters. It’s entirely a people to people contact and registration of voters. It helps a candidate build a database from within the community they are going to represent.
Dr. Reid Sr. was honored by the Virginia Legislature in 2020 with HOUSE JOINT RESOLUTION NO. 334, recognizing his contributions to Virginia — as a compassionate physician, and as an advocate for civil rights, and as a much loved mentor.
Happy Birthday, Dr. Reid Sr.
I hope you are having a great day!