"Any Old Joe Named Zilch"?: The Senatorial Campaign of Dr. Louise Oftedal Wensel

Article excerpt

"I was totally puzzled when I got into it," said Louise Oftedal Wensel of her 1958 campaign against incumbent United States senator Harry Flood Byrd, Sr. "I didn't know much about politics; I just knew I wanted the schools kept ,open. But I thought all of this segregation and discrimination against people because of their skin color was very foolish, very sad, tragic." The thirty-nine-year-old practicing physician, a native of Fargo, North Dakota, had moved to Virginia only four years earlier. She and her family had been living in Washington, D.C., but had chosen to move south for the education of her children. "I didn't know," she recalled, "that I was going from the frying pan into the fire."1

A reluctant political candidate, Wensel proved to be Byrd's primary source of opposition in a campaign that was steeped in the often vitriolic rhetoric of massive resistance and the questions surrounding desegregated schooling. In an era overshadowed by the Cold War, she also injected an international perspective into the racial affairs of Virginia politics. Above all, perhaps, her challenge demonstrated the lingering attitude in late 1950s Virginia that politics was an all-male domain.

Her campaign, however, has been largely dismissed or ignored by historians and biographers of Byrd.2 Although ultimately unsuccessful, it is a campaign worthy of further investigation, not so much for the final outcome as for the manner in which it was conducted. Indeed, the result was never truly in question, even though, four years after the Supreme Court's ground-breaking Brown decision, cracks were beginning to appear in the Byrd machine's previously homogeneous public facade. Byrd's campaigns had traditionally encountered a minority protest vote, against both him personally and his political organization in general. A Richmond News Leader editorial, written on the day after the election, declared emphatically: "In any election in which Mr. Byrd is a candidate... roughly 30 percent of the vote automatically will be cast against him. This is the 'anti-Byrd vote.' It is instinctively anti-Byrd, as cats are instinctively anti-dog, and it [is] as easily predictable as the rising of the sun."3

With the rallying cry of massive resistance, first proclaimed and indeed coined by Byrd in 1956, the senator's political organization appeared to be on steadier, unifying, ground.4 The Old Dominion was set on a path of resistance to the Brown ruling specifically, and to school desegregation more generally. Across the South, segregationist leaders employed legislative measures in attempts to circumvent the decision, and many embarked on campaigns stressing the primacy of states' rights over such incursions by the federal judiciary.

By campaigning against Byrd two years after the incumbent senator's pronouncement, Wensel joined a procession of candidates who had previously attempted to harness the anti-Byrd protest vote, none of whom had received more than 38 percent of the total ballots cast. In 1946 Martin A. Hutchinson, a former state Democratic party chairman, had afforded Byrd the first opposition he had faced in a senatorial primary. His campaign against the incumbent garnered 36.5 percent of the vote. When challenged by Francis Pickens Miller in 1952, Byrd received 216,438 votes to the retired colonel's 128,869.5

Coupled with her enthusiasm, youth, and bravado in a traditionally male-dominated arena, the timing and circumstances of Wensel's campaign showed distinct signs of promise. Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Dalton's gubernatorial contest against J. Lindsay Almond, Jr., in 1957 had been fought mainly on the efficacy of continued legislative resistance to school desegregation. Wensel felt that she, too, would be able to take full advantage of voters' dissatisfaction with the course of Virginia's reaction to the Brown decision. Furthermore, in the time between Dalton's campaign and Wensel's, public schools had actually been closed: Warren County's schools had shut their doors in September 1958, followed by Charlottesville's and Norfolk's. …