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Senator Tim Kaine, Anne Holton, and the Meaning of Character: A Personal Reflection

What growing up in Virginia taught me about moral courage

David Ellenson
August 12, 2016
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
US Vice President nominee Tim Kaine along with his wife Anne Holton, wave to the crowd after delivering remarks on the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
US Vice President nominee Tim Kaine along with his wife Anne Holton, wave to the crowd after delivering remarks on the third day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 27, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

I was born in 1947 and am more than a decade older than Senator Tim Kaine and his wife Anne Holton. However, as I listened to the Vice-Presidential acceptance speech the Virginia Senator delivered at the Democratic National Convention and watched his wife Anne Holton, current Secretary of Education of the Commonwealth, sitting next to her father, former Governor of Virginia Linwood Holton, I thought back to my own formative years in Newport News, Virginia. It was there that my eastern European Jewish grandparents improbably immigrated at the turn of the twentieth century, and it was there that the Holton family taught me much about the roots of character.

In November of 1969, I had just graduated from the College of William and Mary and was teaching at Dunbar Elementary School in Newport News to a segregated class of all black students. Linwood Holton was elected the first Republican Governor of Virginia since Reconstruction that same year and Governor Holton and his wife made the highly publicized decision to send Anne and their other children to a public school attended predominantly by African American students. The moral impact and meaning of this decision cannot be exaggerated. It engendered great controversy and says a great deal about the historical context of the struggle for civil rights and against racism at this point in American history.

The decision the Holtons made established a standard of righteousness that reverberated throughout the Commonwealth, the South and the nation. Governor and Mrs. Holton clearly felt a sense of moral obligation to make what they knew was the right ethical decision, and their decision to send their children to a public school presaged and paralleled the decision Jimmy Carter, another Southern Governor of the period, and his wife Rosalyn made when they chose to send their daughter Amy to public school in Washington after Carter assumed office as President in 1977.

I do not know whether an audience reading about this today can fully grasp what the Holtons’ decision meant in 1970. After all, we are seemingly long past those days. The decision as to where to send one’s children to school is now essentially a private one with apparently small symbolic political or moral significance. Both the Clintons and the Obamas elected to send their daughters to a first-rate private school when they entered the White House with little if any political fallout or commentary. However, the enormity of meaning attached to the decision the Holtons made in 1970 cannot be underscored enough. During this tumultuous period, the decision of white parents to send their children to integrated public schools was without question the single greatest test of moral decency every Southern white family confronted.

This is because the politics of race was the central issue in the Virginia and the South of my boyhood and there was strict segregation in all public facilities along with ubiquitous signs separating “white” from “colored” people in all these venues as well as in the public schools. While the landmark 1954 Brown v. Topeka decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and held that the doctrine of “separate, but equal” was unconstitutional, Virginia Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Winchester—the dominant political voice in Virginia during those years—formulated a policy of “massive resistance” to integration in opposition to the ruling of the Supreme Court that guided the political direction of the Commonwealth during those years.

My parents and virtually all the Jews in my community were enthusiastic supporters of Governor Lindsay Almond of Roanoke, who, after he took office in 1958, abandoned the policy of “massive resistance” that his political mentor Senator Byrd had promulgated. Instead, Governor Almond stated that Virginia would obey the law of the land as dictated by the Supreme Court. Regarded as a “traitor” by many in his own class, Governor Almond was a hero in my home and in the homes of virtually all the Jews in our community.

Nevertheless, the struggle for the desegregation of public facilities and the public school system was hardly ended by Governor Almond and the battle over school integration raged throughout the 1950s and 1960s in Virginia and throughout the South. I remember shamefully that Prince Edward County in Virginia closed all its public schools at one point during this period rather than allow integration. It may have been the one place in the English speaking world that had—for a short time—the disgraceful distinction of having no public school system whatsoever. Moreover, the public schools that were open remained overwhelmingly segregated, including my own. The African Americans in my community attended Huntington High School, while the white students like me attended Newport News High School. It was only in 1965 during my senior year in high school that the first black student enrolled at Newport News High. More significantly, a system of private schools often supported by public funds was created in many places in Virginia and throughout the South which allowed a de facto system of completely segregated education to be maintained.

Dr. Martin Luther King once observed that the arc of history bends towards justice. Governor Holton and his wife played a positive role in assuring that history bent, however haltingly and imperfectly, in that direction. History was on their side and their moral courage shines out in a commanding way when looking back on those challenging days. The decision of the Holtons to send their children to the public school they did with the racial composition that marked it spoke volumes about their character and principles and sent an unmistakable ethical message to the state and the nation. The Holtons stand even now as moral exemplars to people of my generation and my region.

Senator Kaine seems by every standard to be a man of exceptional integrity, religious faith, and rare decency. He has devoted his career to championing the downtrodden. I have been impressed by his record of service in Honduras as well as his lifelong commitment to civil rights. Knowing the degree to which the values of justice and equality marked the home in which Anne Holton was raised and the admiration Senator Kaine has for his father-in-law Governor Holton only reinforces my support for the Virginia senator’s candidacy.

At a time of great divisiveness in our country, we need more of the moral courage the Kaines and the Holtons have embodied.

Rabbi David Ellenson served as President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion from 2001-2013. He is currently Chancellor-Emeritus of HUC-JIR and Director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.

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