Senator Byrd, in his new book, again confronts early ties to KKK
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
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
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
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.
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
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
> Last week, Byrd said: "I know now I was wrong.Robert Byrd could have switched party with Trent Lott and Strom
> 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."
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.