On Wednesday an estimated 2,000 Virginia politicos will descend on the town of Wakefield. You may wonder where is Wakefield, well it is about an hour southeast of Richmond. It’s in a part of the state that is known as peanut and pine country.
The Shad Planking is the annual fund raiser for the Wakefield Ruritan club. The event actually dates to the 1930s near Smithfield, Virginia, beginning as a small gathering of friends to celebrate the James River running of shad -- the oily, bony fish smoked for the occasion on wood planks over an open flame.
The Shad Planking became famous in the 1950’s, you see the Byrd Democrats who ran the state, saw the event as an opportunity to gage the mood of the public. In a way the Shad Planking became a large focus group. The Byrd Democrats could test out issues, ideas and candidates. A bad speech by a prospective candidate could sink his career. I am not exaggerating when I say, that many Governors were made at the Shad Planking, and many political careers came to an end.
Now to give you a sense of the history of Shad Planking I would like to tell you story about J. Sargeant Reynolds, and his controversial speech. Sargeant Reynolds was the Lt. Governor, and in the late 1960s he was a rising star in Virginia politics. Young, charismatic, rich and successful he was considered on the fast track to the Governors Mansion and only in his 30’s was already being talked about as a possible future President. Politically, Reynolds was a moderate Democrat, perhaps you might call him a liberal. In those days the dominate Democrat party consisted of the reactionary Byrd Democrats, and the more moderate or liberal Democrats. Reynolds was in the moderate camp challenging the Byrd machine. But like a hero in a Shakespearian tragedy Reynolds would not live a long life. In 1970 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. To protect his privacy he kept the extent of his medical condition quiet. Most didn’t know he was dying.
But as long as he lived he fought to advance his ideas. And to his surprise he was offered a chance to speak at the Byrd dominated Shad Planking in 1971. Reynolds knew he didn’t have much time left, and agreed to speak. Rather then trying to mend fences Reynolds used his opportunity to attack the Byrd Democrats on their home turf. In his speech Reynolds brought up their past sins, the poll tax, literacy tests, massive resistance. He implored them to change, and he stated his progressive vision for the commonwealth. Needless to say his speech was not well received.
Sadly, less the two months after the Shad Planking Reynolds lost his battle with cancer. He was only 34 years old. You see Virginia political history is made ever year in the little town of Wakefield.