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Senator Byrd, in his new book, again confronts early ties to KKK

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/8272822/ A senator s shame Byrd, in his new book, again confronts early ties to KKK By Eric Pianin The Washington Post Updated:
    Message 1 of 2 , Jun 19, 2005

      A senator's shame
      Byrd, in his new book, again confronts early ties to

      By Eric Pianin
      The Washington Post
      Updated: 12:12 a.m. ET June 19, 2005

      In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher
      from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his
      friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku
      Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining
      fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every
      applicant, the "Grand Dragon" for the mid-Atlantic
      states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to
      officially organize the chapter.

      As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin
      of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young
      Byrd's organizational skills that he urged him to go
      into politics. "The country needs young men like you
      in the leadership of the nation," Baskin said.

      The young Klan leader went on to become one of the
      most powerful and enduring figures in modern Senate
      history. Throughout a half-century on Capitol Hill,
      Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has twice held the
      premier leadership post in the Senate, helped win
      ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, squeezed
      billions from federal coffers to aid his home state,
      and won praise from liberals for his opposition to the
      war in Iraq and his defense of minority party rights
      in the Senate.

      Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated
      Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of
      his association with one of the most reviled hate
      groups in the nation's history.

      "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," Byrd wrote in a new memoir -- "Robert
      C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields" -- that
      will be published tomorrow by West Virginia University

      Latest account
      The 770-page book is the latest in a long series of
      attempts by the 87-year-old Democratic patriarch to
      try to explain an event early in his life that
      threatens to define him nearly as much as his
      achievements in the Senate. In it, Byrd says he viewed
      the Klan as a useful platform from which to launch his
      political career. He described it essentially as a
      fraternal group of elites -- doctors, lawyers, clergy,
      judges and other "upstanding people" who at no time
      engaged in or preached violence against blacks, Jews
      or Catholics, who historically were targets of the

      His latest account is consistent with others he has
      offered over the years that tend to minimize his
      direct involvement with the Klan and explain it as a
      youthful indiscretion. "My only explanation for the
      entire episode is that I was sorely afflicted with
      tunnel vision -- a jejune and immature outlook --
      seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the
      Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and
      ambitions," Byrd wrote.

      While Byrd provides the most detailed description of
      his early involvement with the Klan, conceding that he
      reflected "the fears and prejudices I had heard
      throughout my boyhood," the account is not complete.
      He does not acknowledge the full length of time he
      spent as a Klan organizer and advocate. Nor does he
      make any mention of a particularly incendiary letter
      he wrote in 1945 complaining about efforts to
      integrate the military.

      'You can rise above your past'
      Byrd said in an interview last week that he never
      intended for his book to provide "finite details" of
      his Klan activities, but to show young people that
      there are serious consequences to one's choices and
      that "you can rise above your past."

      He suggested that his career should be judged in light
      of all that he did subsequently to help lift his state
      out of poverty, and to bring basic and critically
      needed services and infrastructure to West Virginia.

      "I grew up in a state where we didn't have much hope,"
      Byrd said. "I wanted to help my people and give them
      hope. . . . I'm just proud that the people of West
      Virginia accepted me as I was and helped me along the

      Byrd's indelible links to the Klan -- the "albatross
      around my neck," as he once described it -- shows the
      remarkable staying power of racial issues more than 40
      years after the height of the civil rights movement.
      Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) learned that lesson the hard
      way at a birthday party in December 2002, when his
      nostalgic words about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.),
      who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948,
      caused a public uproar and cost Lott the majority
      leader's post.

      Klan issue raised in House contest
      West Virginia has been embroiled in issues of race and
      civil rights from its inception at the start of the
      Civil War, when 55 western mountain counties with few
      slaves seceded from Virginia. From the beginning, the
      rich veins of bituminous coal beneath rugged mountain
      ranges drove the state's economy, and attracted
      workers from throughout Appalachia and immigrants from
      as far away as Eastern and Southern Europe. Few blacks
      settled in the state, and even today African Americans
      constitute little more than 3 percent of the

      A world away from many of the millionaires who inhabit
      the Senate, Byrd grew up poor but proud during the
      Depression, with a stunning work ethic and a hunger to
      learn. Born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North
      Wilkesboro, N.C., on Nov. 20, 1917, the future senator
      was a year old when his mother died of influenza. In
      accordance with her wishes, his father dispersed the
      children among family members. Young Cornelius was
      sent to live with an uncle and aunt, Titus and Vlurma
      Byrd, who settled in southern West Virginia. The Byrds
      adopted their young nephew and renamed him Robert C.

      Byrd recalls in his book that when he was a small boy,
      his adoptive father, a coal miner, left him with a
      friend in Matoaka, W.Va., one Saturday while he went
      to participate in a parade. Watching from the window,
      young Byrd saw people dressed in white hoods and robes
      and wearing white masks over their faces. Some years
      later, he wrote, he learned that his father had been a
      member of the Klan and took part in the parade.

      His parents and the boarders who lived with them
      inculcated Byrd in "the typical southern viewpoint of
      the time," he wrote. "Blacks were generally distrusted
      by many whites, and I suspect they were subliminally

      'Caught up' with belonging to an organization
      West Virginia was never considered a hotbed of Klan
      activity, as were states in the Deep South, but it had
      its share of violence against blacks and immigrants.
      Forty-eight people, including 28 blacks, were lynched
      in West Virginia, mostly during the late 1880s and
      early 1900s, according to the Tuskegee University
      archives. The last two reported lynchings occurred on
      Dec. 10, 1931, in Lewisburg, W.Va. By the time Byrd
      began organizing for the Klan during World War II, the
      organization had largely morphed into a money-making
      fraternal organization that was virulently anti-black,
      anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

      Married, with two daughters, Byrd developed a network
      of friends and associates while working as a meat
      cutter. He wrote that he became "caught up with the
      idea of being part of an organization to which
      'leading' persons belonged."

      Byrd's book offers a truncated description of his days
      with the Klan that does not completely square with
      contemporaneous newspaper accounts and letters that
      show he was involved with the Klan throughout much of
      the 1940s, and not merely for two or three years.

      According to his book, Byrd wrote to Samuel Green, an
      Atlanta doctor and "Imperial Wizard" of the Ku Klux
      Klan, in late 1941 or early 1942, expressing interest
      in joining. Some time later, he received the letter
      from Baskin, the "Grand Dragon" of mid-Atlantic
      states, saying he would come to Byrd's home in Crab
      Orchard whenever Byrd had rounded up 150 recruits for
      the Klan.

      'Exalted Cyclops'
      When Baskin finally arrived, the group gathered at the
      home of C.M. "Clyde" Goodwin, a former local law
      enforcement official. When it came time to choose the
      "Exalted Cyclops," the top officer in the local Klan
      unit, Byrd won unanimously.

      Byrd asserts that his Klan chapter never engaged in or
      preached violence, "nor did we conduct any parades or
      marches or other public demonstrations" -- other than
      one time delivering a wreath of flowers in the shape
      of a cross to the home of a member who had been killed
      in a pistol duel.

      Byrd wrote that he continued as a "Kleagle" recruiting
      for the Klan until early 1943, when he and his family
      left Crab Orchard for a welding job in a Baltimore
      shipyard. Returning to West Virginia after World War
      II ended in 1945, he launched his political career,
      but not before writing another letter, to one of the
      Senate's most notorious segregationists, Theodore
      Bilbo (D-Miss.), complaining about the Truman
      administration's efforts to integrate the military.

      Byrd said in the Dec. 11, 1945, letter -- which would
      not become public for 42 more years with the
      publication of a book on blacks in the military during
      World War II by author Graham Smith -- that he would
      never fight in the armed forces "with a Negro by my
      side." Byrd added that, "Rather I should die a
      thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt
      never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of
      ours become degraded by race mongrels."

      With the help of fiddle-playing skills that became his
      political trademark for decades, Byrd won election to
      the state legislature, where he served in both
      chambers until he ran for the U.S. House in 1952. His
      political career almost ended there, however, when his
      opponents revealed his former ties to the KKK.

      Confronting the issue, Byrd went on the radio to
      acknowledge that he belonged to the Klan from
      "mid-1942 to early 1943," according to newspaper
      accounts. He explained that he had joined "because it
      offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed
      to communism." He said that after about a year, he
      quit and dropped his membership, and never was
      interested in the Klan again.

      Byrd won the primary, but during the general election
      campaign, Byrd's GOP opponent uncovered a letter Byrd
      had handwritten to Green, the KKK Imperial Wizard,
      recommending a friend as a Kleagle and urging
      promotion of the Klan throughout the country. The
      letter was dated 1946 -- long after the time Byrd
      claimed he had lost interest in the Klan. "The Klan is
      needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see
      its rebirth here in West Virginia," Byrd wrote,
      according to newspaper accounts of that period. Byrd
      makes no mention of the letter in his new book.

      Political transformation
      Stunned Democratic state party officials, including
      then-Gov. Okey L. Patteson, urged him to drop out of
      the race. Byrd survived the ensuing political
      firestorm, won the general election and went on to
      serve six years in the House before winning his Senate
      seat in 1958. During his Senate campaign, he told a
      newspaper reporter that he personally felt the Klan
      had been incorrectly blamed for many acts committed by

      Byrd's life story is one of political transformation
      and redemption as he evolved from a redneck politician
      to a mainstream Democrat in a party dominated by
      liberals. But there was no way for him to completely
      bury his Klan ties, and his past would resurface time
      and again throughout his career.

      During the 1960 presidential campaign, Byrd, who was
      closely allied with then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon
      B. Johnson (Tex.), tried to derail the Democratic
      front-runner, Sen. John F. Kennedy (Mass.), in the
      crucial West Virginia primary. At Johnson's urging,
      Byrd supported Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (Minn.) in the
      primary. Kennedy allies retaliated with leaks to the
      press about Byrd's work as a Klan organizer. Byrd said
      in his book that as a result he received hate mail and
      threats on his life.

      Four years later, Byrd's Klan past became an issue
      again when he joined with other southern Democrats to
      oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd filibustered
      the bill for more than 14 hours as he argued that it
      abrogated principles of federalism. He criticized most
      anti-poverty programs except for food stamps. And in
      1967, he voted against the nomination of Thurgood
      Marshall, the first black appointed to the Supreme

      Transformation into leader of Senate
      Historians, political analysts and admirers have long
      sought to reconcile Byrd's early Klan affiliation with
      his image as a pillar of the Senate. More
      extraordinary is how he managed to overcome such a
      blot on his record to twice become Senate majority

      "To imagine someone who was a member of the Klan in
      his youth who managed to become the majority leader of
      the Senate, it's really quite striking," said
      congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings

      Byrd said last week that his membership in the Baptist
      church tempered his views and marked "the beginning of
      big changes in me." And like other southern and
      border-state Democrats of his time, Byrd came to
      realize that he would have to temper his blatantly
      segregationist views and edge toward his party's
      mainstream if he wanted to advance on the national

      As a rising member of the leadership, Byrd paid close
      attention to minor legislative and scheduling details
      that made life easier for other senators, always
      showed colleagues elaborate courtesy, and wrote thank
      you notes on the slightest pretext. In 1971, he
      challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) for the
      majority whip post and unseated him, after securing
      the death-bed proxy of the legendary Sen. Richard B.
      Russell (D-Ga.), another of Byrd's mentors and the
      architect of the southern filibuster against civil
      rights legislation.

      When Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) retired as majority
      leader in 1976, Byrd easily captured the post.

      "Byrd's whole life became the Senate, seven days a
      week, 24/7, always on call," said Merle Black, an
      Emory University expert on southern politics. "The
      goal was institutional power, to be influential in the

      At odds in his own party
      But his transformation to mainstream Senate leader was
      far from smooth, and his cultural conservatism,
      emphasis on "law and order," and strong support for
      the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s put him at
      odds with blacks and many lawmakers in his own party.

      James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia chapter
      of the NAACP and an occasional critic of the senator,
      said Byrd transcended his past by gradually embracing
      more enlightened social views and by simply owning up
      to his past mistakes. "He doesn't try to lie his way
      out of things," Tolbert said. "If he's wrong, he'll
      say he's wrong."

      By relentlessly serving his state's economic
      interests, Byrd has secured his place as West
      Virginia's preeminent politician. As a long-reigning
      chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations
      Committee, Byrd pumped billions of dollars worth of
      jobs, programs and projects into the state that did
      not have a single mile of divided four-lane highway
      when he began his political career. More than three
      dozen bridges, highways, schools and public buildings
      are named for him.

      Still, says Ken Hechler, 90, a liberal Democratic
      former U.S. House member from West Virginia who served
      with Byrd in Congress, "It's impossible for anyone to
      try to whitewash the KKK and its overall symbolism."

      "But at the same time," he added, "we honor those
      people who publicly admit the error of their ways."

      Last week, Byrd said: "I know now I was wrong.
      Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a
      thousand times . . . and I don't mind apologizing over
      and over again. I can't erase what happened."
      © 2005 The Washington Post Company
    • Ram Lau
      ... Robert Byrd could have switched party with Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond back in the sixities and seventies. But instead he chose to do the right thing and
      Message 2 of 2 , Jun 19, 2005
        > Last week, Byrd said: "I know now I was wrong.
        > Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a
        > thousand times . . . and I don't mind apologizing over
        > and over again. I can't erase what happened."

        Robert Byrd could have switched party with Trent Lott and Strom
        Thurmond back in the sixities and seventies. But instead he chose to
        do the right thing and became a reliable and consistent civil rights
        supporter. He will be remembered as one of the greatest Americans in
        centuries to come.

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