A. Linwood Holton Jr., who as Virginia’s first Republican governor in nearly a century knocked loose the stranglehold of white supremacy on the state, cleaned up its waterways and promoted a vision for a biracial Republican coalition across the South, died on Oct. 28 at his home in Kilmarnock, Va. He was 98.
His death was announced in a statement released by his four children. No cause was given.
As a moderate Republican, Mr. Holton played a transformative role in his state’s politics. Until the late 1960s, conservative Democrats, many of them avowedly racist, held a tight grip on state politics, even as Virginia voters were leaning toward the Republicans in presidential elections.
Mr. Holton’s victory, in 1969, was close, but not exactly a surprise. He had spent nearly 20 years building a coalition composed of Black voters, small businesspeople and organized labor, whom he attracted with a platform based on ending discrimination, modernizing government and promoting economic development.
“Here in Virginia we must see that no citizen of the commonwealth is excluded from full participation in both the blessings and responsibilities of our society because of his race,” Mr. Holton said in his inaugural address in January 1970, standing in front of the State Capitol in Richmond, once the capital of the Confederacy.
It was a time of racial optimism, in Virginia and nationwide. The civil rights movement and federal legislation of the 1960s had enabled millions of Black Americans to enter the white-collar work force and the political arena. Mr. Holton seemed to be leading the charge, especially as other racially progressive Southerners like Jimmy Carter found similar success.
“You watch,” he told The New York Times a few days after his inauguration. Black people, he said, would be “in training for executive positions in industry, in the white establishment, within a year or so. It will be voluntary. And no one will have enough nerve to fight me on it.”
Mr. Holton immediately named several Black officials as advisers, board members and agency heads, and he issued an executive order banning discrimination in state employment.
His biggest challenge came nine months into his term, when a court ordered the city of Richmond to employ busing to achieve meaningfully integrated public schools. Mr. Holton had previously opposed busing, but with the order in place, he endorsed it.
While many wealthy white students transferred to all-white private schools, Mr. Holton and his wife sent their three school-age children to their assigned majority-Black schools. A photograph of Mr. Holton accompanying his 13-year-old daughter, Tayloe, to Kennedy High School appeared in newspapers nationwide.
“It’s always hard for a child to change schools,” he said in an interview after leaving the school. “They don’t want to leave old friends. But my children go where they are assigned.”
Mr. Holton left office in 1974 with a 77 percent approval rating, but his political moment had already passed. He had opposed Richard M. Nixon’s so-called Southern strategy, which called for opening the Republican Party to disgruntled, pro-segregation Southern Democrats, but to little avail. His successor, Mills Godwin, was a former Democratic governor who had bolted to the Republicans over his party’s liberal views on race.
Abner Linwood Holton Jr. was born on Sept. 21, 1923, in Big Stone Gap, a small mining community in the far southwest reaches of Virginia. His father ran a railroad that hauled coal out of the nearby mountains; his mother, Edith (Van Gorder) Holton, was a homemaker.
He is survived by his wife, Virginia (Rogers) Holton, known as Jinks; his children Anne, Woody, Dwight and Tayloe; and 10 grandchildren.
The Holton family came by their Republicanism easily. Small-town businessmen like Mr. Holton Sr. were reliable party supporters, as were the people of southwestern Virginia, a party stronghold since the Civil War.
Mr. Holton Jr. attended Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He joined the Navy after graduating and served as a submarine officer, reaching the Pacific Theater in the final months of World War II.
He studied law at Harvard, and after graduating in 1949 returned to Roanoke, in southwest Virginia, to practice. Within a year he was active in the local Republican Party, such as it was: The first meeting he attended, in 1950, drew just eight people.
As in much of the South, Democrats dominated Virginia politics. Throughout the 1950s, they held all but nine seats in the 140-member General Assembly. The party’s hold was further strengthened by the presence of Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr., a former governor and avowed white supremacist who had dominated state politics for over 40 years.
Mr. Holton saw an opening for a state Republican Party rooted in the moderate conservatism of Dwight D. Eisenhower, with an emphasis on racial integration and economic development. He ran for a seat in the House of Delegates, the Assembly’s lower chamber, in 1955 and 1957. He lost both times, but in the process emerged as one of the leading figures in the Virginia Republican Party.
Mr. Holton grudgingly supported Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for president, but the racial rancor generated by that campaign, especially in the South, made him even more sure that Virginians needed a different type of Republican.
He ran for governor in 1965, losing to Mr. Godwin, who supported the resistance strategy against school segregation that, among other things, had seen public schools in Prince Edward County, Va., shut down for five years to avoid integration.
Mr. Holton ran again in 1969, and this time won a narrow victory. Nixon, the new president, stumped for him, but so did organized labor and much of the state’s Black political establishment.
Along with his fight for racial equality, Mr. Holton raised taxes to clean up Virginia’s waterways, created a single authority to oversee the ports around the mouth of the Chesapeake River, expanded mental health services and signed a law expanding women’s access to abortions.
After leaving office, he served briefly in the Nixon administration, as the assistant secretary of state for congressional relations. He then returned to private practice, though he did take one final stab at public office. He ran for the Republican nomination for Senate in 1978, but came in third in the primary. (The nominee, Richard D. Obenshain, died in a plane crash before the election and was replaced on the ticket by John Warner, who won the election. Mr. Warner died in May.)
Mr. Holton remained a Republican; in 1986, President Ronald Reagan appointed him to serve as head of the authority overseeing Washington’s two airports. But over time he grew estranged from his party — in part, perhaps, for family reasons. His daughter Anne is married to Virginia’s junior senator and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, the Democrat Tim Kaine.
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