Senator Byrd and the KKK

November 17th, 2008

As Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) approaches 90 years of age, he is praised in some quarters almost to the point of reverence.  Lest we not forget, the Senator has a past that would have been used to force him out of public life if there was an “R” after his name instead of a “D”.

Senator Byrd has written a memoir, as I learned when I came across an old article in The Washington Post. He had little choice but to address his history with the Ku Klux Klan, although he tried to gloss over that part of his life. The Washington Post story presented an apparently even-handed analysis of what Byrd said in the book about his involvement in the KKK and the truth, much of which varies from Byrd’s account.

I knew that Byrd held the title of “Kleagle” as an organizer and recruiter for the KKK. I didn’t know that he organized a 150-man Klan unit from scratch and was unanimously elected as leader, the “Exalted Cyclops.” I knew he was in the Klan for a year or two, based on his own admissions. I didn’t know that he was a member quite a bit longer and was very active.

I knew about his active opposition to civil rights for African Americans well into his Senate career. I didn’t know about some things that clearly illustrated the depth of his racism.

For example, a letter he wrote in 1945 to the notorious segregationist, Democratic Senator Theodore Bilbo, gave his reaction to a book about the military service of blacks and the Truman Administration’s efforts to integrate the military. Byrd wrote that he would never fight in the armed forces “with a Negro by my side.” He went on:

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.

Byrd was in his twenties during World War II but didn’t serve in the military, saving him from the awful prospect of serving “with a Negro by my side.” His official Senate biography brushes past his lack of military service, giving no reason. I searched a large number of other biographical sources and didn’t find the answer. Maybe there was a good reason. But the fact remains, while millions of other men his age were defending our country during World War II, Byrd’s service was to the Ku Klux Klan. Instead of being a sergeant or a captain, he was a Kleagle and an Exalted Cyclops.

According to the Washington Post, Byrd says in the book that

…he viewed the Klan as a useful platform from which to launch his political career. He described it essentially as a fraternal group of elites — doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges and other “upstanding people” who at no time engaged in or preached violence against blacks, Jews or Catholics, who historically were targets of the Klan.

However, as the Post points out,

By the time Byrd began organizing for the Klan during World War II, the organization had largely morphed into a money-making fraternal organization that was virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

It’s ironic that Democrats could have so honored a man like this for so long. They’ve even repeatedly elected him to Senate leadership positions, including twice as the leader of their Party. These are the same Democrats who claim to be the Party of working people and minorities, the same Democrats who hounded Senator Trent Lott out of his leadership position because of a stupid, off-the-cuff remark with racist implications.

As a kid growing up in the south, I knew about the KKK. It was very secret, of course, and few people knew who was a member. But everyone, white and black, knew what the KKK was and what it did now and then. Also, I often heard that bit about it being just a harmless “fraternal organization.” That was crap back then, and it’s crap now. If the people of West Virginia want a man like Byrd to represent their state, that’s on them. The honors bestowed on him over the years by Democrats in the Senate is a stain on all of us.

Note: You can find details about and a history of the Ku Klux Klan here.

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