Democratic Senator and President Pro Tempore Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in history, died this morning. He served 57 years, and holds many records, among them: holding the most Senate positions (Majority leader twice, minority leader, etc.), being elected for the most terms (9); casting the most votes in history (over 18,000).
As many news sources spread word of his death and memorialize him, two things seem to jump out: the first, his KKK involvement, which is what pushed him to get involved in politics in the first place, and the second, his ability to stay true to his state (West Virginia) and reflect the views of his consitutents.
As for the first, he became involved with the Ku Klux Klan when he was in his twenties, at which point their regional leaders encouraged him to run for the House. He stayed involved with the Klan for a short time, and then cut his ties. When asked later about his involvement, he said that it was “a sad mistake,” and his track record of voting for civil rights bills plus his vote for Supreme Court nominee Sotomayor convinced people that he had left his white supremacist roots behind, though to imagine someone in the Senate nowadays having that kind of background is very surprising. Is his past forgivable under the circumstances?
From “Robert Byrd’s Baffling Career: From Segregationist to Senate Sage” by Walter Shapiro
In his 2005 autobiography, Byrd referred to his two years as a Kleagle in the West Virginia Klan during World War II when he wrote, “It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one’s life, career, and reputation.” But two years after Byrd left the KKK to work in a war-time Baltimore shipyard, he wrote to Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo (one of the most virulent racists in the Senate) declaring, “Rather I should die a thousand times . . . than to see this beloved land of ours degraded by race mongrels.”Two decades later, Byrd delivered a 14-hour address as the final gasp of the Southern Senate filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But in addition to resorting to time-eating historical gambits like reading aloud the entire text of the Magna Carta, Byrd turned to the Bible to justify segregation. Dismissing the call of Jesus to love one’s neighbor, Byrd thundered, “But the scriptural admonition does not say that we may not choose our neighbor . . . It does not admonish that we shall not build a wall betwixt us and our neighbor.”
As to the second point, throughout his time in Congress he fought in the interests of coal miners and the companies that ran the mines, got the money to build major highways and other pieces of infrastructure to support WV’s economy, and all in all, seems to have stayed focused on his state rather than getting sidetracked by national or personal interests.
As Patricia Murphy writes in “Sen. Robert Byrd, Longest-Serving Member of Congress, Is Dead at 92,”
The Almanac of American Politics once wrote that Byrd came “closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other.”
Lastly, a major achievement I read about in the above article, when he first entered the House he had neither a college nor a law degree. However, after taking night classes for 10 years at American University, he earned a law degree, presented to him by President Kennedy. And in 1994, Marshall University, located in West Virginia, awarded him an honorary college degree, when he was 77 years old. So, he truly was the quintessential “self-made man” which Americans are always calling for.
What do you think, will you remember Byrd fondly?