Senator Robert Byrd and the Ku Klux Klan

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia playing a fiddle
Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia Plays the Fiddle. Shepard Sherbell / Getty Images

Robert Carlyle Byrd of West Virginia served in the United States Congress from 1952 to 2010, making him one of the longest serving U.S. Senators in American history.

While in office, he earned the praises of civil rights advocates. However, prior to his political career, Byrd was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan during the early 1940s.

Early Byrd and the Klan

Born in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, on Nov. 20, 1917, Byrd's mother died when he was 1 year old. His father surrendered the child to his aunt and uncle, who subsequently adopted him.

Raised in a West Virginia coal mining community, the future senator often said that his childhood experiences helped shape his political beliefs.

While working as a butcher in the early 1940s, Byrd formed a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Sophia, West Virginia.

In his 2005 book, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, Byrd recalled how his ability to quickly recruit 150 of his friends to the group impressed a top Klan official who told him, “You have a talent for leadership, Bob ... The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation.”

Flattered by the official's observation, Byrd continued his leadership role in the Klan and was eventually elected Exalted Cyclops of the local group.

In a 1944 letter to segregationist Mississippi Senator Theodore G. Bilbo, Byrd wrote,

“I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

As late as 1946, Byrd wrote to the Klan’s Grand Wizard: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.”

Running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, Byrd worked to distance himself from his Klan activities. He claimed he lost interest in it after a year and dropped his membership in the group. Byrd also said that he joined just for the excitement and because they were opposed to communism.

In interviews with The Wall Street Journal and Slate magazine in 2002 and 2008, Byrd called joining the Klan “the greatest mistake I ever made.” To young people interested in becoming involved in politics, Byrd warned,

“Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena.”

In his autobiography, Byrd wrote that he had become a KKK member because he

“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. ... 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 … 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.”

The Robert Byrd of Congress

Byrd's career in public service began on November 4, 1952, when the people of West Virginia elected him to his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives.

He campaigned as a New Deal Democrat. Byrd served six years in the House before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958. He would continue to serve in the Senate for the next 51 years, until his death at age 92 on June 28, 2010.

During his time in office, Byrd was one of the Senate's most powerful members. Byrd served as secretary of the Senate Democratic Caucus from 1967 to 1971 and as Senate Majority Whip from 1971 to 1977. His leadership positions were numerous, including Senate majority leader, Senate minority leader, and president pro tempore of the Senate. In four separate terms as president pro tempore, Byrd stood third in the line of presidential succession, after the vice president and the speaker of the House of Representatives.

Change of Mind on Racial Integration

In 1964, Byrd led a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as most of the anti-poverty programs of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative.

In the debate against anti-poverty legislation, Byrd stated, “we can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people.”

But while he voted against civil rights legislation, Byrd also hired one of the first black congressional aides on Capitol Hill in 1959 and initiated the racial integration of the United States Capitol Police for the first time since Reconstruction.

Decades later, Byrd would speak with regret about his earlier stances on race. In 1993, Byrd told CNN that he wished he hadn't filibustered and voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would take them back if he could.

In 2006, Byrd told C-SPAN that the death of his teenage grandson in a 1982 traffic accident had radically changed his views. The profound grief he felt made him realize that African-Americans loved their children as much as he loved his own.

While some of his fellow conservative Democrats opposed the 1983 bill creating the Martin Luther King Jr. Day national holiday, Byrd recognized the importance of the day to his legacy, telling his staff, “I am the only one in the Senate who must vote for this bill.”

However, Byrd was the only member of the Senate to vote against the confirmations of both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, the only two African-Americans nominated to the United States Supreme Court.

In opposing the 1967 confirmation of Marshall, Byrd cited his suspicion that Marshall had ties to communists. In the case of Clarence Thomas in 1991, Byrd stated that he was offended when Thomas called opposition to his confirmation a form of “high-tech lynching of uppity blacks.” He felt that Thomas injected racism into the hearings.

Byrd called the comment a “diversionary tactic,” adding “I thought we were past that stage.” Byrd also supported Anita Hill in her accusations of sexual harassment by Thomas and was joined by 45 other Democrats in voting against Thomas’ confirmation.

When interviewed by Tony Snow of Fox News on March 4, 2001, Byrd said of racial relations,

“They're much, much better than they've ever been in my lifetime … I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us ... I just think we talk so much about it that we help to create somewhat of an illusion. I think we try to have good will. My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that.”

NAACP Praises Byrd

In the end, the political legacy of Robert Byrd went from admitting his former membership in the Ku Klux Klan to winning the accolades of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The group rated the senator's voting record as being 100% in line with their positions during the 203-2004 congressional session.

In June 2005, Byrd sponsored a bill allocating an additional $10 million in federal funds for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When Byrd died at age 92 on June 28, 2010, the NAACP released a statement saying that over the course of his life he “became a champion for civil rights and liberties” and “came to consistently support the NAACP civil rights agenda.” 

Biographical Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Robert Carlyle Byrd (born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr.)
  • Known for: American politician. Longest serving member of U.S. Senate in American history (over 51 years)
  • Born:  November 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina,
  • Died: June 28, 2010 (at age 92), in Merrifield, Virginia
  • Parents: Cornelius Calvin Sale Sr. and Ada Mae (Kirby)
  • Education:
    - Beckley College
    - Concord University
    - University of Charleston
    - Marshall University (BA)
    - George Washington University - American University (Juris Doctor)
  • Major Published Writings
    - 2004. “Losing America: Confronting A Reckless and Arrogant Presidency.”
    - 2004. “We Stand Passively Mute: Senator Robert C. Byrd's Iraq Speeches.”
    - 2005. “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.”
    - 2008. “Letter to a New President: Commonsense Lessons for Our Next Leader.”
  • Wife: Erma James
  • Children: Daughters Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore
  • Notable Quotation: “One's family is the most important thing in life. I look at it this way: One of these days I'll be over in a hospital somewhere with four walls around me. And the only people who'll be with me will be my family.”

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