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Robert Byrd’s Redemption

Posted on Jun 29, 2010
AP / Lauren Victoria Burke

“End of an era” is an overused trope, but in this case it’s appropriate: The last of the old Southern Democrats is gone. 

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Sen. Robert Byrd had long since repented, of course. The West Virginian, who died Monday at 92, deeply regretted his segregationist past, which included a year as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and at least several more years as a Klan sympathizer. He eventually became a passionate advocate for civil rights, and he was one of the most vocal supporters of legislation making the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. a national holiday.

But that was after Byrd’s personal enlightenment. Amid what is sure to be a flood of heartfelt encomiums to his lifetime of public service, it is important to note that his is a story of change and redemption—and that Byrd and his party had a shameful past to overcome.

In Byrd’s first campaign for the House in 1952, his opponent released a letter that Byrd had written to the Klan’s imperial wizard in 1946. The date is important because Byrd claimed to have cut ties with the racist organization—today we would call it a terrorist group—in 1943. “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia,” Byrd wrote.

This was in the days when the South was a solid Democratic stronghold—and when the default position of Southern Democrats was to advocate separation of the races. In 1964, Byrd joined other members of his party, led by Richard Russell of Georgia, in trying to kill the Civil Rights Act. Back then, would-be obstructionists were required to actually stage a filibuster rather than just threaten one. Byrd held the Senate floor for 14 hours in an effort that was ultimately as futile as Pickett’s Charge.


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“Men are not created equal today, and they were not created equal in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written,” Byrd declaimed during his peroration. “Men and races of men differ in appearance, ways, physical power, mental capacity, creativity and vision.”

Byrd also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and most of Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, saying that “we can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people.”

From 1961 to 1969, Byrd chaired a Senate subcommittee that had vast authority over local affairs in the District of Columbia. He supported more federal funding for local services, but also angered local activists with a high-profile crusade to remove ineligible recipients from the welfare rolls.

“His tongue was smoother than butter,” recalled the Rev. Walter E. Fauntroy, the District’s first nonvoting representative in Congress, “but war was in his heart.” 

That martial spirit was evident in 1968 when riots broke out following King’s assassination. “If it requires the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, we should put the troublemakers in their places,” he said. Well, he did have a way with words.

Byrd’s trajectory—from bitter segregationist to beloved dean of the Senate—is actually a hopeful, quintessentially American story. He was a man of his age, and his views on race closely tracked the views of the constituents he so loyally represented. There was a time when separate-but-unequal was a mainstream position among whites in the South, and the fact that Byrd’s early words and deeds are so shocking today is a testament to how far the nation has come.

Byrd’s career is also a reminder that no political party has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. It was Southern Democrats who tried desperately to deny equal rights to African-Americans, and it was the votes of Northern Republicans that helped pass the landmark legislation. Southern whites switched parties and made the South a GOP bastion. This has been the situation for decades now—but it won’t last forever.

Last week, in my home state of South Carolina, an African-American named Tim Scott defeated Strom Thurmond’s son in the Republican primary for a seat in the House. The GOP nomination for governor was won by Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent and was called a “raghead” by one of her good ol’ boy critics. In Alabama, Rep. Artur Davis failed to become the first African-American to win the Democratic nomination for governor—largely because he took the African-American vote for granted.

Robert Byrd’s amazing career reminds us that times really do change. And so do people.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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Go Right Young Man's avatar

By Go Right Young Man, July 9, 2010 at 5:30 pm Link to this comment

Big B, - “I just returned home from work to find my earlier comment on the demise of Robert Byrd eliminated from the list.’ - ‘Guess I hit the nail a little too hard on the head for some of the Byrd desciples at TD.”


Big B, I’m going to do something now which I very rarely do.  Not in person or on the Web.  I’m calling you out as a complete idiot and/or a fraud.

Your comments were deleted from this thread due to your profuse reliance on obscenities when writing about Sen. Byrd.

Did you honestly convince yourself that you had Spoken Truth To Power? And that said Powers had your comments deleted?

I can’t decide whether I am appalled more by your sense of self-importance or, your dishonesty with everyone on this thread.

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By nemesis2010, July 4, 2010 at 2:16 pm Link to this comment

Good riddance!

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By Lockweed, July 1, 2010 at 8:04 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

When Byrd was born the world was a completely different place.  Not everyone
took it as far as joining the Klan, but most people in the world believed in
separation of races and opposed marriage between races.  Separation was the
law of the land.  I still remember when driving from NY to Florida as a kid and
asking my mom what it meant when I saw a water cooler for “coloreds”.  This
was 1968.

Many people would be surprised at people considered heroes that are
connected with fighting bigotry, but were extremely bigoted themselves. 
Winston Churchill referred to Arabs as niggers (considered them a less worthy
people than Jews), opposed giving India its independence and opposed the post
war immigration to Great Britain of blacks from the Caribbean.  Ghandi, whose
people were under the boot of Churchill’s Great Britain said “the difference
between Hitler and Churchill is only of a degree”.  He didn’t say who he
considered worse.  But when your on the winning side of a war your sins are
ignored or covered up and the losing sides sins are highlighted.  Indeed, some
Indians fought with Germans against the British and today recognize that Hitler
indirectly helped them become independent.  Of course Hitler felt he was
fighting against injustices committed against Germany.

The world is not black and white with one side being completely innocent and
the other completely evil.  I got off the subject of the senator, but I’m sure most
people in the US are unaware of these facts.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, June 30, 2010 at 8:27 pm Link to this comment

Pork barrel spending and redistributionist largesse obviously doesn’t always work. Otherwise West Virginia would be “almost heaven”. Byrd sent billions to the state during his career and the place is still a mess. Why?

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, June 30, 2010 at 8:19 pm Link to this comment


Do you think for an instant that Byrd wrote those words? He has been a corpse for fifteen years. The instant he died a dozen staffers/EMTs lost their jobs.

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rico, suave's avatar

By rico, suave, June 30, 2010 at 8:14 pm Link to this comment

“Populace”. Will you knock it off!! Come up with another word!

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By adc14, June 30, 2010 at 5:37 pm Link to this comment

Too bad Byrd’s enlightenment isn’t shared by most West Virginians. It’s still a backwater state with too many poor, ignorant and,yes, racist folks.

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By fusion, June 30, 2010 at 2:08 pm Link to this comment

Try this:

“We Stand Passively Mute”
Sen Robert Byrd, on the floor of the US Senate
Wednesday 12 February 2003


To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. On this February day, as this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war.

Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent—ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.

We stand passively mute in the United States Senate…

And this is no small conflagration we contemplate. This is no simple attempt to defang a villain. No. This coming battle, if it materializes, represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and possibly a turning point in the recent history of the world.

... This Administration has turned the patient art of diplomacy into threats, labeling, and name calling of the sort that reflects quite poorly on the intelligence and sensitivity of our leaders, and which will have consequences for years to come.

...One can understand the anger and shock of any President after the savage attacks of September 11…But to turn one’s frustration and anger into the kind of extremely destabilizing and dangerous foreign policy debacle that the world is currently witnessing is inexcusable from any Administration charged with the awesome power and responsibility of guiding the destiny of the greatest superpower on the planet.

Frankly many of the pronouncements made by this Administration are outrageous. There is no other word.

...Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent. On what is possibly the eve of horrific infliction of death and destruction on the population of the nation of Iraq—a population, I might add, of which over 50% is under age 15—this chamber is silent. On what is possibly only days before we send thousands of our own citizens to face unimagined horrors of chemical and biological warfare—this chamber is silent. On the eve of what could possibly be a vicious terrorist attack in retaliation for our attack on Iraq, it is business as usual in the United States Senate.


A giant, flawed in many ways, but one who had the courage not only to re-invent himself [from young Ku Klux Klan member to supporter of equal rights] but to bring his constituents with him…a careful, logical legislator, a passionate defender of the Senate and especially of the Constitution…and a magnificent orator…

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By Inherit The Wind, June 30, 2010 at 11:35 am Link to this comment

NotsoUsefullIdiot has apparently just generated one of the great spoofs on the racist yahoos who claim the mantle of “Conservative” from those with brains.

He reminds me of Tina Fey’s eerie and hilarious parody of Sarah Palin’s interview with Amy Poehlin (as Katy Couric) where she used Palin’s words VERBATIM to make Palin look inane!

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By Big B, June 30, 2010 at 5:08 am Link to this comment

I always like to re-read Thompson’s obituary of Nixon anytime some politico drops dead and is instantly cannonized by the MSM.

My most stinging critique of Byrd is that he was in a position to lead the people of WVA to a better life and a better future years ago, yet he chose to go along, get along, and let them wollow in coal dust and ignorance for generation after generation. He was happy to let the people of his state be america’s morlocks. Morlocks, after all, never made any demands of their representative, or their employers. This was the perfect situation for a self important swine like Byrd.

Byrd represented the worst of us, and there are still far too many of his ilk out there in decision making positions. It’s why we may not pull ourselves out of our current tailspin.

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By ofersince72, June 29, 2010 at 8:51 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Robinson,

Mr Artur Davis didn’t lose because he took the black
vote for granted… He lost because he is no more than
a black Dixicrat and didn’t fool the black voters in
I suggest you , Mr. Robinson, get up to date on black
polictics,  visit Glen Ford’s Black Agenda Report
Eugene…Blacks are not going to be the shoe in vote
for Democrats like they used to be.
They know who stripped the funding for ACORN.
They know the Mayor of Chicago’s involvment with the
former police chief torturing black Americans.
They know the Democrat’s contributions to the War on Drugs
that has been used as institutional racism.
The Democrats will finally have to work for the black
vote Eugene, and they are losing badly.

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By JDmysticDJ, June 29, 2010 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment

Bob B.

Hunter S. Thompson spoke Ill of the dead, when Nixon died. His very long rant in the June 16, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone included the following excerpt.

“If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

Every paragraph in Thompson’s long article was equally as venom filled, but I think you’ve equaled him in your criticism of Byrd. I’m wondering if this relatively harmless politico is worthy of your venom filled rant. His shining hour came when he spoke out against the coming invasion of Iraq, but he was never revered by the left because he carried a lot of old south baggage, and the stigma of longevity.

He seems to have been the consummate politician in terms of getting re-elected, and I’m sure he was an effective wheeler and dealer, and beholden to some deep pockets.

I suppose the primitive Inuit would have put him on an iceberg, to float off into oblivion.

I’m guessing that Hunter S. Thompson’s fear and loathing had to do with the fear that the Republicans would use Nixon’s death as a political football, and you fear that the democrats will use Byrd’s death in the same way. Don’t fear, Byrd’s passing will go by relatively unnoticed, and he’ll only be an asterisk in the record book.

“SOUTH WILLIAMSON, Ky.—In a speech on the coal industry, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said coal must change in the future.

He added that no deliberate effort is under way in Washington to do away with the coal industry would ever succeed, and coal companies stirring up public anger towards federal regulatory agencies damages West Virginia’s ability to work with them.”

But speaking at the Massey Christmas Extravaganza in Kentucky, CEO Don Blankenship said it’s ridiculous for people to not think the government is out to get them. He also had some strong words for the Environmental Protection Agency.

‘EPA stands for ‘Equal Poverty for All,’’ he said. “They don’t appreciate coal. In fact, they think coal is a bad thing. They’re exporting our jobs and destroying our economy and telling us not to be worried about it.’

Blankenship added that Byrd may be ‘riding the fence’regarding the coal industry.

‘(President Barack) Obama’s expecting their support, meaning Rockefeller, Byrd, Rahall, and they’re sort of caught between what they know is best for West Virginia and having all this favor with Obama,‘said Blankenship.

Blankenship said he has never met Byrd.”

I’ll suggest that Bryd was concerned with what was best for the people of West Virginia and for the nation, while Blankenship was concerned with what was best for Blankenship and Massey Coal.

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By Big B, June 29, 2010 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment

I just returned home from work to find my earlier comment on the demise of Robert Byrd eliminated from the list.

Guess I hit the nail a little too hard on the head for some of the Byrd desciples at TD.

PatrickHenry, you nailed it, the dimmer people of the mountain state will stand in line on a wet rainy day to vote for a name they recognize. You may remember the former governor Arch Moore, who was thrown out of office and into federal prison for corruption, and was promptly re-elected the year he got out.

You have to hand it to West Virginians, if it against their own best interests, and wrapped in the flag, they will accept it with a fervor.

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By NotSoUsefullidiot, June 29, 2010 at 2:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Byrd ain’t nothin’ but another big business commonest. He’s like Obama and all the rest of them commies. They’s all in it together and they are trying to make America a commonest country.

America has been takin’ over by commies, and the whole world is commonest. There are only a few good Americans, and we need to save the world. This wonderful world was created by God to be ruled by white people. Evry body knows that, but no body wants to admit it. Look at the history of the world, white people done evry thing. Hell, if it wernt for white people the world would still be livin’ in the jungle.

This is the way it works. The best people are from the north of Europe, Norwegians and the rest, Germans (Some Germans, theys too much Slav and jew stuff mixed in with the germans) Then comes the English, cept the English are mixed with French and Italian (It’s in the history books) then the French, but theys too closed to Spain and Italy. Evry body knows the Spanish are mostly Arab and all the meditrianian peoples is mostly arab, and arabs is the same as nigras. All peoples with dark skins was punished by god, that includes injuns, chinks, gooks, japs, and all the rest, an evry body knows it. Forget the Russians they aint really white, they blood was corrupted by Jews,  Mongols and medtrainians.

Evry thing is the fault of the Jews. They killed Jesus and they been evil ever since. Hell, we got the best bombs in the world, we could blow up the whole shebang, and put it together again, but evry bodys so stoopid, they scared to do it.

Don’t get me started on the queers, Ya’ll better wake up, before it’s too late. You all so stoopid you better wake up and listen to me, evry body knows I know what I’m talkin’ bout, but nobody wants to admit it.

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By MarthaA, June 29, 2010 at 2:02 pm Link to this comment

BobM, June 29 at 2:06 pm,

Byrd was a Conservative, which is the exact opposite of a Liberal.  Conservatives vote with the elites and the huge corporations and talk like they are for the populace.  Real Liberals do what is best for the populace to the best of their ability, which was not Robert Byrd. 

I know of no Liberal who calls themselves a “bleeding heart liberal”; therefore I conclude that you are a Conservative blaming all the horrible ugliness of Conservatism off on others who choose not to be   Conservatives, as framing Conservative perpetrators as the victims has always been a Conservative Right-Wing EXTREMIST propaganda, sophism and false rhetoric tactic against Liberals.

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By Inherit The Wind, June 29, 2010 at 1:52 pm Link to this comment

Deminer, June 29 at 7:31 am #
(Unregistered commenter)

How can someone from West Virginia be a Southerner? I think you have your
American history and geography a bit astray here. Not all red necks are
Southerners, much less every red state.


To a Virginian, West Virginians and Marylanders aren’t really Southerners.

To a North Carolinian, Virginians aren’t really Southern.

To a South Carolinian, everyone from North Carolina and parts North isn’t really a Southerner.

To a Georgian, South Carolnians aren’t really Southern.

And to a Northerner, none of that makes sense.

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PatrickHenry's avatar

By PatrickHenry, June 29, 2010 at 1:46 pm Link to this comment


Another poster boy for term limits.

Like Strom Thurmond, we let these guys stay well beyond their expiration date.  They have to die to get them out of office.

I bet he still gets votes next election.

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mrfreeze's avatar

By mrfreeze, June 29, 2010 at 11:57 am Link to this comment

Big B - Please, tell us how you REALLY feel!!!!

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William W. Wexler's avatar

By William W. Wexler, June 29, 2010 at 10:20 am Link to this comment

Yes, “end of an era” is overused, Eugene, so why use it again?

Instead, wouldn’t it make more sense to refer to Byrd as the “Poster Boy for Term Limits”?


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By BobM, June 29, 2010 at 10:06 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You got that right Bib B…. this sack of shit should be dragged through the streets just like “his” KKK loved doing to their “nigger” neighbors. In 1991 he used the word nigger to Bret Hume… how quickly you bleeding heart liberals forget!
So STFU you stupid Liberals who give this jerk a pass… you’re just as shallow and racist as he was.

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By Deminer, June 29, 2010 at 3:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How can someone from West Virginia be a Southerner? I think you have your
American history and geography a bit astray here. Not all red necks are
Southerners, much less every red state.

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