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.

William Grant Still’s Birthday: African American Classical Composer

This is the birthday of the very talented William Grant Still, the first African American composer and conductor of classical music to get much national recognition in the US. He was the grandson of enslaved African Americans and faced both poverty and much racial discrimination in his relatively long life. According to Wikipedia’s summary he composed more than 150 compositions:220px-Grantstill (Photo: wikipedia)

He was the first African-American to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony of his own (his first symphony) performed by a leading orchestra, the first to have an opera performed by a major opera company, and the first to have an opera performed on national television. He is often referred to as “the dean” of African-American composers.

He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and celebrated and advocated for jazz and blues as central music for African Americans and US society as a whole. His first and famous first symphony, the Afro-American, was composed in 1930. It was performed the next year by the Rochester Symphony. It makes use of the long African American musical heritage, including the blues, much other rhythmic material such as that of jazz, and the tenor banjo. It also makes use of the African American poet, Paul Dunbar’s, poetry. Sample the symphony here.

Why is it not surprising that such a very talented American musician and his music are all but forgotten in this country, including in our history textbooks?

Here is a website dedicated to him. Here is another great site too,, with its blog here.

Celebrating Black History: W.E.B. DuBois

Today marks the birthday of pioneering sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois (February 23, 1868 – August 27, 1963).   Du Bois was the first African American to earn a PhD in Sociology at Harvard University.  Du Bois was an prolific and insightful scholar who, over his lifetime, wrote wrote 21 books, edited 15 more, and published over 100 essays and articles.  He’s probably best known for The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (1899)  The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903),  and Black Folk, Then and Now (1939).  Du Bois also published John Brown (1909), a sympathetic portrayal of the controversial anti-racist.

From 1897 to 1910 Du Bois served as professor of economics and history at Atlanta University, where he organized conferences titled the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problem and edited or co-edited 16 of the annual publications, on such topics as The Negro in Business (1899), The Negro Artisan (1902), The Negro Church (1903), Economic Cooperation among Negro Americans (1907), and The Negro American Family (1908). In grad school, I spent a good deal of time pouring through the archives of these conferences and came very close to writing a dissertation on the conferences which were fascinating.  (I think there’s still a dissertation to be written on these conferences, in case any readers are looking for dissertation ideas!)

Du Bois was also an activist, in addition to being a scholar.  He was one of the founding members of the NAACP, and over his lifetime, his views became more radicalized.   He long identified with the African roots of black American culture, and was a leading Pan-Africanist.   As he aged, he grew more and more disillusioned with the seemingly intractable state of racism in the U.S. and emigrated to Ghana in West Africa.   He died there at age 95 in 1963 and was honored with a state funeral.

Ronald Takaki Has Died: A Great Loss for the Country, and for Race Scholarship

takaki AsianWeek has a sad notice, about the untimely death of the great scholar of race and racism, Prof. Ronald Takaki at U. California-Berkeley (Photo: AsianWeek).

I will do a long post over the next week or so, but for now their summary is fine:

It is with great sadness to announce that Professor Emeritus Ronald Takaki passed away on the evening of May 26th, 2009. He is survived by his wife, Carol Takaki, his three children Dana, Troy, and Todd Takaki, and his grandchildren.

Ron Takaki was one of the most preeminent scholars of our nation’s diversity, and considered “the father” of multicultural studies. As an academic, historian, ethnographer and author, his work helped dispel stereotypes of Asian Americans. In his study of multicultural people’s history in America, Takaki seeked to unite Americans, today and in the future, with each other and with the rest of the world.

He was a professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught over 20,000 students during 34 years of teaching.

HeraldNet has this good post too.

More on John Hope Franklin

Part of John Hope Franklin’s legacy has been preserved by StoryCorps, America’s largest nonprofit oral history project whose mission is to honor and celebrate one another’s lives through listening.

In this powerful story, Franklin tells about being a Boy Scout in the 1920s. Take a listen here (about 2 minutes).

This particular story was collected as part of the Griot Initiative whose mission is to preserve the life stories of African Americans. All interviews recorded as part of this initiative will be archived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.


In Memoriam: John Hope Franklin (1915-2009)

The great U.S. historian, John Hope Franklin, died yesterday at a Duke University hospital. He was a pioneering scholar and civil rights leader. He did pathbreaking work as one of the leading scholars working on this history of African Americans and U.S. racial oppression, scholarship building on the earlier work of scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois. His most famous and widely influential book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African-Americans, was an essential text for many of us who have become researchers in this area and is still widely read and used in its numerous editions. Franklin was professor emeritus at Duke, which put out an obituary summarizing his great contributions to this country, to all Americans of all backgrounds.
This summary of his life is candid about the discrimination Duke inflicted on him, indeed as southern libraries and universities often did:

At the time From Slavery to Freedom was published, there were few scholars working in African-American history and the books that had been published were not highly regarded by academics. To write it, he first had to give himself a course in African-American history, then spend months struggling to complete the research in segregated libraries and archives – including Duke’s, where he could not use the bathroom.

Yet Franklin persevered:

Franklin worked on the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) case, joined protestors in a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Ala. and headed President Clinton’s 1997 national advisory board on race.

My only personal contact with Dr. Franklin was when he asked me to testify before President Clinton’s 1997 task force on race, at its stormy Denver, Colorado session. He was chair of the advisory board for this effort, called One America: The President’s Initiative on Race. As chair of that board, he was still strong as a civil rights leader, though somewhat frail in body. The Duke obituary adds this further recollection:

In January 2005, he spoke at Duke at the celebration of his 90th birthday, displaying the fire that motivated him throughout his long life. While others at the event talked about the past and reminisced about his accomplishments, Franklin focused squarely on the future. He described the event, held the same day as President George W. Bush’s second inauguration, as a “counter-inaugural” … He recounted some of the historical inequalities in the United States and recalled some of his own experiences with racism. He said, for example, that the evening before he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton, a woman at his club in Washington, D.C., asked him to get her coat. Around the same time, a man at a hotel handed Franklin his car keys and told him to get his car. “I patiently explained to him that I was a guest in the hotel, as I presumed he was, and I had no idea where his automobile was.

Even as a leading scholar and civil rights leader, well into his 80s, Franklin still faced the ugly reality of U.S. racism in his everyday life.

The grandson of a slave, Franklin’s work was informed by his first-hand experience with injustices of racism — not just in Rentiesville, Okla., the small black community where he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, but throughout his life. . . . The realities of racism hit Franklin at an early age. He has said he vividly remembers the humiliating experience of being put off the train with his mother because she refused to move to a segregated compartment for a six-mile trip to the next town. He was 6.

He survived the Tulsa race riot (actually a white pogrom in which at least 300 black citizens were killed by whites) of 1921. Unable to attend the Jim Crowed University of Oklahoma, he went to Fisk University, to study law but was convinced to study history by a white history professor there. That professor loaned him the money to begin study at Harvard, where he got his Ph.D. degree in 1941.

He began his career as an instructor at Fisk in 1936 and taught at St. Augustine’s and North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), both historically black colleges. . . . Then in 1947, he took a post as professor at Howard University, where, in the early 1950s, he traveled from Washington to Thurgood Marshall’s law office to help prepare the brief that led to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In 1956 he became chairman of the all-white history department at Brooklyn College. Despite his position, he had to visit 35 real estate agents before he was able to buy a house for his young family and no New York bank would loan him the money. . . . He spent 16 years at the University of Chicago, coming to Duke in 1982. He retired from the history department in 1985, then spent seven years as professor of legal history at the Duke Law School.

The Duke obituary adds this summary of his extraordinary research work:

Franklin was a prolific writer, with books including The Emancipation Proclamation, The Militant South, The Free Negro in North Carolina, George Washington Williams: A Biography and A Southern Odyssey: Travelers in the Antebellum North. He also has edited many works, including a book about his father called My Life and an Era: The Autobiography of Buck Colbert Franklin, with his son, John Whittington Franklin. … He received more than 130 honorary degrees, and served as president of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, the American Studies Association, the Southern Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians and the American Historical Association.

Recently Franklin wrote his Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin (2005) and you can hear an interview with him about it at this Duke site.

We will miss him greatly.

Jasper, Texas: 10 Years After a Racist Murder

Ten years after the racist murder of James Byrd by three white men in Jasper, Texas. Today on my local NPR affiliate, WNYC, they aired an interesting interview (available online after 7pmEST) by Michele Norris of two ministers from Jasper who were crucial in creating an environment of racial healing following the murder. Norris talks to Father Ronald Foshage of St. Michael’s Catholic Church and Pastor Kenneth Lyons of Greater New Bethel Baptist Church about how they worked to avert further racism in their community immediately following the murder and in the years that followed. The two ministers reflect on the healing process that took place between blacks and whites in the town and how important the show of a larger number of whites showing up at James Byrd’s funeral was to healing the wounds in that town. They also give praise to the Byrd family for their forgiveness from the very beginning. And, they mention how many whites in Jasper did not want to mark the tenth anniversary of this horrible crime, yet leaders like Father Foshage and Pastor Lyons led the way emphasizing the issue of remembrance for addressing racism. For a good account of this event, see Joyce King’s Hate Crime (Random House, 2002).

: Here are some details on the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., from my Racist America book (references can be found there):

In June 1998, a black man, James Byrd, Jr., was walking down a Jasper, Texas, road. Three white men, with tattoos suggesting ties to white-supremacist groups, beat him savagely, tied him to a pickup, and dragged him along a road until his head and arms were severed. One man reportedly said to the others, “We’re starting The Turner Diaries early,” referring to violence by white supremacists in that racist novel. The girlfriend of one of the men said that, while she knew he was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and did not like blacks, she did not see him as a racist. This lynching was not just an isolated incident. Indeed, it brought to national attention the larger social context of antiblack violence. After the lynching a Ku Klux Klan group held a rally for the white supremacist cause in Jasper. In addition, this area of Texas is known to be white supremacist territory. A white militia group has a training facility in the county, and a few Christian Identity churches are in nearby towns. The Jasper lynching triggered copycat crimes in at least two other cities, Belleville, Illinois, and Slidell, Louisiana, where several white men in cars reportedly attacked and injured black men.

The Jasper lynching and similar violent personal attacks on black men and women, as well as such attacks on other Americans of color, are most often carried out by working-class whites. Yet the responses of some elite and middle-class whites to the Jasper lynching revealed a certain indifference to these crimes. For example, the first New York Times article on the Jasper lynching was buried on page 16; the bloody lynching did not rise to the level of a front page story. In addition, one New York Times article spent considerable space on the problems of the black victim himself, describing his alcoholism and unemployment—as if such things mattered in assessing the meaning of his Klan-type lynching.

On the 40th Anniverary of Martin Luther King’s Death

MLKOn the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, there are lots of remembrances of him from people who were in Memphis at the time (thanks to gtwain for that link) and others for whom his death forever shaped the rest of their lives (photo credit). I thought it appropriate today to put up some thoughts about the two issues that were most on the mind of King at the time of his death: war and poverty. It was exactly one year before he was killed (April 7, 1967) that King gave his famous “Riverside Speech” (at Riverside Church here in New York) in which he denounced the Vietnam War. In that speech he lists seven, very powerful reasons for his opposition, among the most moving today is this:

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

I think about this as I hear people today talk about violence and immediately shift the focus to angry, young, black men as if they had invented violence.

Of course, King was in Memphis in 1968 to draw attention to a protest by sanitation workers, a protest that he saw as central to the poor people’s movement he wanted to build.    When Dr.King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, he spoke of “two evils” – the first was racial injustice and the second was poverty:

A second evil which plagues the modern world is that of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, it projects its nagging, prehensile tentacles in lands and villages all over the world. Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist. This problem of poverty is not only seen in the class division between the highly developed industrial nations and the so-called underdeveloped nations; it is seen in the great economic gaps within the rich nations themselves. Take my own country for example. We have developed the greatest system of production that history has ever known. We have become the richest nation in the world. Our national gross product this year will reach the astounding figure of almost 650 billion dollars. Yet, at least one-fifth of our fellow citizens – some ten million families, comprising about forty million individuals – are bound to a miserable culture of poverty. In a sense the poverty of the poor in America is more frustrating than the poverty of Africa and Asia. The misery of the poor in Africa and Asia is shared misery, a fact of life for the vast majority; they are all poor together as a result of years of exploitation and underdevelopment. In sad contrast, the poor in America know that they live in the richest nation in the world, and that even though they are perishing on a lonely island of poverty they are surrounded by a vast ocean of material prosperity. …So it is obvious that if man is to redeem his spiritual and moral “lag”, he must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the “haves” and the “have nots” of the world. Poverty is one of the most urgent items on the agenda of modern life.

His words ring as true today as they did more than forty years ago.  My hope on this anniversary is that we can find the political will to carry forward the substance of Martin’s vision rather than simply reassure ourselves with ceremonial and self-congratulatory rhetoric that his dream has been realized.

Bearing Witness: Rev. Kyles

There are lots of media folks in Memphis this week at the National Civil Rights Museum, including Tavis Smiley who interviewed Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who was on the balcony with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was assassinated. In this clip, Rev. Kyles describes the lightheartedness that preceded that horrific moment and what he has come to view as his purpose in being there:

Full interview on Tavis Smiley tonight.