When the audience member asked, “Why did you pursue this story?” I decided to abandon the safe answers that I usually give to that question. Instead, I tried to put into words the feelings that have percolated inside me ever since I started working on The Last Lynching in Northern Virginia.
Usually when someone asks about the book, I talk about how the death of Shedrick Thompson was an incident that promised to hold my interest through months of research. Sometimes I add that it is a story of sufficient length and complexity to challenge me as a writer. This time, however, at a program Saturday at the Black History Museum of Virginia in Richmond, I talked about something more personal. I talked about my feelings toward Harry F. Byrd.
Byrd was Virginia governor from 1926-30 and U.S. senator for more than 30 years. As I told my questioner, I am a native Virginian and old enough to remember how powerful he was. Even though he was based in Washington, he ruled Virginia as if he were still in Richmond and a permanent resident of the Executive Mansion.
I objected to Byrd’s pay-as-you-go strategy for state finances. His insisted that the state avoid debt, which meant that Virginia did not have money for needed roads, schools and other services. To me, it made sense to borrow at low interest rates and let future residents help pay for improvements. Most of all, I objected to his naked racism. Byrd’s program of Massive Resistance to school integration in the late 1950s did untold damage to Virginia children.
So I was inspired when I learned of the role he played in the Thompson tale. Byrd was a key player in the cover-up of Thompson’s lynching. He and his friends lobbied intensely to have Thompson’s death listed as a suicide rather than a mob murder.
I believe he did this to preserve his political reputation. He didn’t care about justice. He cared only about himself. It was the same brute power that I had always objected to. If my book exposes Byrd’s hypocrisy and the real cause of Thompson’s death, I am delighted. It is small payback for the harm that he did to this state.