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

During the early 1940s, Robert Byrd of West Virginia was a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan. From 1952 to 2010, the same Robert Byrd of West Virginia served in the United States Congress and eventually won the praises of civil rights advocates. How did he do that?

The Robert Byrd of Congress

Born in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, on Nov. 20, 1917, Robert Carlyle Byrd was orphaned at age 1 after the death of his mother.

Raised by his aunt and uncle in a rural West Virginia coal mining town, Byrd credited his experiences growing up in a coal-mining family with shaping his amazing political career.

The legendary congressional career of Robert “Bob” Byrd began on November 4, 1952, when the people of West Virginia elected him to his first term in the U.S. House of Representatives. 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. With a total 57 years on Capitol Hill, Byrd was the longest-serving Senator in United States history and, at the time of his death, the longest-serving member in the history of the U.S. Congress.

Byrd was the last member of the Senate to have served during the Dwight Eisenhower presidency and the last member of Congress to have served during the presidency of Harry Truman.

He also held the distinction of being the only West Virginian to have served in both houses of the state’s legislature and in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.

As 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.

Over the next 33 years, he would hold leadership positions 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.

Along with his lengthy tenure, Byrd was known for his vast array of political skills, his often fierce advocacy for the supremacy of the legislative branch, and his ability to secure federal funds for the State of West Virginia.

Byrd Joins then Leaves the Ku Klux Klan

Working as a butcher in the early 1940s, a young Robert 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.” Byrd later recalled, "Suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities!” Byrd led the growing chapter and was eventually elected Exalted Cyclops of the local Klan unit.

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 stating, “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.”

However, Byrd would soon see fit to put the Klan far behind him.

Running for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, Byrd said of the Klan, “After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization.

During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan.” Byrd said he had initially joined the Klan for the “excitement” and because the organization was opposed to communism.

In interviews with The Wall Street Journal and Slate magazine held 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,” adding, “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.”

Byrd on Racial Integration: A Change of Mind

In 1964, Senator Robert 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 time and politics can change minds.

While he first voted against civil rights legislation, Byrd would later hire one of the first black congressional aides on Capitol Hill in 1959 and initiate the racial integration of the United States Capitol Police for the first time since Reconstruction.

The 1970’s saw a complete reversal in Sen. Byrd’s former stance against racial integration. In 1993, Byrd told CNN that he had regretted his filibuster and vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and would take them back if he could.

In 2006, Byrd told CSPAN that the death of his teenage grandson in a 1982 traffic accident had radically changed his views. “The death of my grandson caused me to stop and think,” he said, explaining that event 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 lone Senator to vote against the confirmations of 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 or the communist party. In the case of Clarence Thomas in 1991, Byrd stated that he had been “offended by the injection of racism” into the hearings when Thomas called opposition to his confirmation a form of “high-tech lynching of uppity blacks.” Byrd called Marshall’s 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).

For the 2003–2004 session of Congress, Byrd was one of only 16 Senators rated by the NAACP as being 100% in line with the group’s position on critical legislation.

In June 2005, Byrd sponsored a successful bill dedicating an additional $10,000,000 in federal funding for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial in Washington, D.C., remarking that “With the passage of time, we have come to learn that his Dream was the American Dream, and few ever expressed it more eloquently.”

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.” 

References

Byrd, Robert C. (2005). Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Pianin, Eric. A Senator's Shame: Byrd, in His New Book, Again Confronts Early Ties to KKK. The Washington Post, June 18, 2005

King, Colbert I.: Sen. Byrd: The view from Darrell's barbershop. The Washington Post, March 2, 2002

What About Byrd?. Slate. December 18, 2002

The Democrats' Lott. The Wall Street Journal. December 12, 2008.

Draper, Robert (July 31, 2008). Old as the Hill. GQ. New York, NY.

“Sen. Robert Byrd Discusses His Past and Present”, Inside Politics, CNN, December 20, 1993

Johnson, Scott. Saying Goodbye to a Great One, Weekly Standard, June 1, 2005

Byrd, Robert. Robert Byrd Speaks Out Against the Appointment of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. American Voices, October 14, 1991.

NAACP Mourns the Passing of U.S. Senator Robert Byrd. “Press Room". www.naacp.org., July 7, 2010

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Longley, Robert. "Senator Robert Byrd and the Ku Klux Klan." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2017, thoughtco.com/robert-byrd-kkk-4147055. Longley, Robert. (2017, August 1). Senator Robert Byrd and the Ku Klux Klan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/robert-byrd-kkk-4147055 Longley, Robert. "Senator Robert Byrd and the Ku Klux Klan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/robert-byrd-kkk-4147055 (accessed January 19, 2018).