Sen. Robert Byrd’s Passing and Thoughts on His KKK Legacy

Since the passing of Sen. Robert Byrd, his life has become a kind Rorschach Test that allows people to say what they’re thinking about race.  Given Byrd’s legacy as a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the U.S.’s homegrown terrorist organization, and a member of the Senate, I’ve been curious about how various media outlets would cover the news.

Senator Robert Byrd 1917~2010

(Creative Commons License photo credit: Nevada Tumbleweed!)

The right-leaning blogosphere has been quick to point out what they see as the hypocrisy of a left-leaning mainstream media for “pushing hagiographic narratives” about Robert Byrd’s past  and for failing to call out Byrd for his KKK past, while left-leaning journos and bloggers have grabbed onto the trope that Byrd’s story was one of racial “redemption” as marking “the end of an era in (so-called) race relations.”

Still other observers have parlayed Byrd’s handling of his KKK legacy into an example for business leaders to follow, as in “5 Things Robert Byrd’s Life Teaches Us About Leadership.” (#3. “If your decisions were bad enough, they’ll haunt you to the end.  Although Byrd changed over time, the Klan would haunt him until the end.”)

Lots of eulogies are like this one at, which calls Byrd a “venerable institution” and this one at the New York Times which calls him a “pillar” –  both referring to Byrd’s career in the Senate.   This is completely understandable given Byrd’s record as the longest-serving senator.  From my perspective, his vote against the Iraq war was a heroic stance and one I was heartened to see at the time.  But it’s his years as not just a member, but a leader of the Ku Klux Klan that I want to address here because I think that legacy can tell us something important about racism in the U.S.    Here’s the account from the New York Times obituary (June 28, 2010):

In the early 1940s, he organized a 150-member klavern, or chapter, of the Klan in Sophia, W.Va., and was chosen its leader. Afterward, Joel L. Baskin, the Klan’s grand dragon for the region, suggested that Mr. Byrd use his “talents for leadership” by going into politics.  “Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” Mr. Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.”

Mr. Byrd insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence. He said in his autobiography that he had joined the Klan because he shared its anti-Communist creed and wanted to be associated with the leading people in his part of West Virginia. He conceded, however, that he also “reflected the fears and prejudices” of the time.

Byrd apologized repeatedly for his involvement with the KKK as a “sad mistake.”  However, he was largely allowed to skate on a number of issues related to his membership in the Klan.  This is a reprieve that, frankly, would never happen today.    For example, it’s not really clear exactly when he left the Klan, nor was he pressed to disavow his views when he went from being an official member of the KKK to when he was an upstanding (conservative) member of the Senate.   While praise has been heaped on him from the left since his passing, his KKK-inspired views influenced his actions well into his tenure in the Senate.

In 1964, he voted against the Civil Rights Act, which he declared was a violation of “States’ Rights.”  And, in 1967, Byrd voted against Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination.  Byrd even approached J. Edgar Hoover (director of the FBI) to see if Marshall had any Communist ties that could ruin his nomination.   This is especially ironic today when Thurgood Marshall’s legacy as a Supreme Court justice is under attack by Senator Kyl in the Kagan hearings. Kyl and the Republicans want to go back to a regressive stance, in many ways replicating the very politics of the Citizen’s Council and the KKK.

In a different supreme court vote in 1991, Byrd voted against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and said, quite famously, “I believe Anita Hill.” Perhaps even more remarkably, Byrd called out Clarence Thomas for his deeply cynical use of the term “high tech lynching” to refer to the confirmation hearings and basically accused him of “playing the race card.”  Oh, the irony runs deep and wide here.

As late as 2001, Byrd got in a lot of trouble for an interview for “Fox News Sunday” in which he said the following when asked about “race relations”:

“They are much, much better than they’ve ever been in my lifetime,” Byrd said, but added that he believed people talk about race too much.

“My old mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.’ We practice that. There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I’m going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.”

Of course, what he got into trouble for is the use of a slur – but it’s what’s at the end of the quote that’s telling, “I’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.”  In many ways, this marks the real move of Sen. Byrd into the mainstream of race-talk in the U.S.  This is where most people are around race in the U.S., they’d just as soon quit talking about it so much.  And, that goes double for any discussion having to do with actual KKK or white supremacist groups, people in the U.S. prefer to not talk about these and pretend they don’t exist.

By 2008, Sen. Byrd was endorsing a fellow Senator, Barack Obama, for President.   This unlikely friendship is the almost irresistible coda to Byrd’s life, as if to say, “it doesn’t matter that he was a leader in the KKK, he was friends with Obama.” This friendship is what ultimately marks Sen. Byrd as “not racist” in the public imagination.

But, the whole narrative of “redemption” rings a bit hollow to me.   It’s not that I don’t think redemption is possible, I do.  I’m just not persuaded by the evidence in Byrd’s case.

To me, what’s compelling in Byrd’s life is that he appeared to at least give some thought — more than most privileged white folks do — about race.  He seemed to make some move toward transformation of his own views on race, however flawed, self-serving, and incomplete those efforts were.  Yet, we actually learned so little of what this process was like and what drove him to engage in this process.  Even in his own account of his KKK leadership he attributes the pull to “anti-Communism” rather than anything to do with race, or his own racism. Of course, all is made whole in the end because of his friendship with one (extraordinary) black man.

There is much that’s lost, however, in the stories being told about Sen. Byrd’s legacy – from the right and from the left –  in the days since his passing.  From the right, there’s a harangue that it’s “hypocritical” to call out racism among some politicians (e.g., Strom Thurmond, Trent Lott – R) but not others (e.g., Robert Byrd-D).   And, indeed it is.   But this doesn’t amount to “racism” on the left.

On the left, the hagiography obfuscates what is actually a complicated, nuanced, imperfect story about race, racism and civil rights, and replaces it with one that’s denuded of the ugliness of actual racism.

The facts of Sen. Byrd’s life are that he was both a leader of the KKK and a leader in the Senate.  His views changed some, but not completely, as he moved from one of these American institutions to the other.  And, for a considerable portion of his life – and the better part of the 20th century – there was considerable overlap between his views in the KKK and his views as Senator.    The sooner we come to terms with Sen. Byrd’s KKK legacy, and the ways that white supremacy are woven into the very fabric of this nation’s institutions, the sooner we can set to work dismantling the vestiges of that legacy.


  1. cordoba blue

    I appreciate that you posted this because I was thinking about how Bryd was classified myself. On a radio talk show, they featured a segment of Byrd explaining, several years ago, his reasons for joining the Klan etc. He said, “It was a different time then. People thought differently than they do now. Many important members of the community were involved in the Klan: doctors, lawyers, businessmen.” My thoughts were, “Yeah. And. What’s your point?”
    This is an explanation? Let’s interpret here. What he in fact is telling us is that it was not politically incorrect to be a racist 50 years ago. Why, everyone was a racist then. And they didn’t have to hide it either. Even Colonel Evans down the lane, a WWII vet, was a racist. See? But today, you can’t be in politics and say you’re a bigot. So, yes, I’ve changed along with the times.
    That’s what I heard. He said he regreted having joined. What he didn’t come right out and say was that racism is cruel and should not be tolerated within a democracy. What he didn’t say was that he was behaving in an uneducated, Neanderthal manner, back then, and actually believed that black people were second class citizens. What he didn’t say was that the real reason he changed was because he didn’t have a prayer of staying in politics if he maintained the Mississippi mentality of black people should be seen but not heard. It’s interesting how various Americans see his passing and interprets his past behavior.
    It actually reminds me of the reverence that Senator Ted Kennedy received at his death. The man allowed a woman he was having an affair with die rather than compromise his political career. Chappaquidick. A typical cut-throat Kennedy gesture. Yes, he accomplished alot as a senator, but the man should have been convicted of manslaughter a long time ago. Point is, let’s not forget a public figure’s cruel past. Yes, it does count in the grand scheme of things.

  2. Joe

    Thanks, Jessie. A very important post. One key to understand Byrd, and most whites who think and act like him, is that he never quit viewing the world from a version of the old and deep white racial framing of society. And it seems evident that he never made the attempt to question that framing in basic ways, just adjusted (mostly) to a less blatant language in public. That is why racism is so fundamental in this society. Even those whites who abandon overt white supremacy still often look at society out of that old white racial frame, and thus with a frame-induced ‘blindness’ to the racial oppressions and inequalities still so central to US society. Deep racial change requires anti-racist counter framing.

  3. The “redemption” ideal never really hit home for me w/Byrd. I don’t think it can apply to a person unless they express heartfelt regret AND put forth a sincere opinion on how they would like things to really be (i.e. — no more existence of KKK, etc). I don’t think he did both of those explicitly, certainly not to the extent needed. There’s a huge difference between LEARNING a behavior based primarily on your transforming environment, and the deep-rooted emotional CHANGE that results from an epiphany. I experienced more than one epiphany during my teen years, and they helped me grow from an ignorant somewhat racist boy (courtesy of my surroundings) into a champion for equality and one who has fought against racism incessantly for over 2 decades now since I’ve been an adult. I’ve always admired Malcolm X for where his soul wound up at the end of his own journey, and I’m sorry but Mr. Byrd was no Malcolm X when it comes to enlightenment… or redemption.


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