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Rick Steelhammer: If the Don Knotts statue topples, nothing's sacred

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The racist past of West Virginia’s former senior senator, Robert C. Byrd, was so appalling even he eventually became sickened by it.

During the 1940s, Byrd was a member of and an officer in the Ku Klux Klan. Later, he was known to utter and write racially charged words that went well beyond insensitive, and do his best to quash efforts to remove Jim Crow laws.

He filibustered for an agonizing 14 hours, 13 minutes in a failed bid to derail the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and for the next few years, used his power as a ranking member of the U.S. Senate to generally oppose progress wherever it raised its head.

And then he began to change.

His views on social issues began to moderate, then move in new directions. By the early 1990s, he had publicly apologized on numerous occasions for his membership in the Klan and his Dixiecrat take on race.

In 2005, in announcing a proposal to add $10 million to the construction fund for the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, Byrd said that “with the passage of time, we have come to learn that [King’s] dream was the American Dream, and few ever expressed it more eloquently.”

In a 2006 ceremony, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to sign into law an extension of the Voting Rights Act. Two years later, Byrd backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, West Virginia’s Democratic nominee, in his bid to become the first Black president.

In his final years in the Senate, Byrd was among 17 Senators to receive a 100% voting record on issues deemed critical by the NAACP.

Following Byrd’s death in 2010, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous observed the senator’s career “reflects the transformative power of this nation. He went from being an active member of the KKK to being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of this nation.”

But the concept of a person being able to experience a major change in outlook apparently doesn’t resonate with everyone.

In 2016, when Donald Trump drew flak from balking at disavowing support from KKK leader David Duke, Trump supporters sent up a flare questioning why Democrats hadn’t disavowed Byrd for his Klan connection. But that’s comparing apples to oranges, since Byrd is no longer with us, his KKK connection had been broken 75 years earlier, and since then, the senator had been inching toward the opposite end of the political spectrum. Meanwhile, Duke’s worldview remained Klan-friendly.

In 2017, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., commented that she found the amount of Confederate statuary in the Capitol building “reprehensible,” Washington Times columnist Charles Hurt played the “What about Byrd?” card, too.

If Democrats like Pelosi are so upset about symbols of racism in the Capitol, they should also be eager to dismantle the building’s office space named in honor of Byrd, Hurt suggested, since to him there are apparently no degrees of nuance separating the outlooks of Confederate generals and the senator.

Earlier this month, Fox News personality Brooke Singman followed suit, questioning why the current push to remove Confederate statues from public space hasn’t prompted Democrats to get rid of public works bearing Byrd’s name that are scattered across his home state.

That strand of uncritical thinking apparently struck a chord with administrators at Bethany College in Brooke County, where a decision was made last week to remove Byrd’s name from the college’s health center to demonstrate the college’s “capacity to change, to listen, and to learn.”

Kind of like Robert C. Byrd did during the course of his life.

Meanwhile, a petition drive at Marshall University to have Byrd’s name, along with that of Albert Gallatin Jenkins — a Confederate General, Cabell County planter and slaveholder — removed from campus buildings has collected about 1,500 signatures.

I can see the desire to un-remember Jenkins, who went out of his way to return escaped and freed slaves to their “owners.” But to me, a more obvious target than Byrd is the university’s namesake, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, who inherited, bought and sold enslaved people and regarded them, from a legal standpoint, at least, as property. Unlike Byrd, he never changed his outlook.

If Marshall’s 8-foot-tall statue on the MU campus isn’t a worthy target, the statue of Railroad tycoon and Huntington namesake Collis P. Huntington at Heritage Village could be an option. Huntington exploited Chinese rail workers in his employ, and fairly openly bribed members of Congress. He once wrote that competition among bribe-takers had driven the price needed “to fix things” in Washington up to $200,000 to $500,000 per session.

To find a statue or public work named for someone who has done no wrong could involve an extensive search. The Don Knotts statue in Morgantown comes to mind as a possibility, but the figure holds a Mayberry P.D. hat in one hand in homage to Barney Fife, the fidgety fictional patrolman with unsafe firearm skills.

Fife could also have been a bit of a racist, but we’ll likely never know, since appearances by black characters on the show for him to interact with were so rare.

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

Funerals for Friday, July 3, 2020

Austin, Daniel - 12:30 p.m., Austin-Hope-McLeod Cemetery, Gallipolis Ferry.

Browning, James - 1:30 p.m., Pineview Cemetery, Orgas.

Cogar, Lela - 11 a.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Cook, Thermal - 1 p.m., Haven of Rest Memory Gardens, Red House.

Estep, Jerry - 2 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Grose, Violet - 2 p.m., Phillips Cemetery, Ovapa.

Hager, Vaughn - 2 p.m., Casto Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Ratliff, Karen - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.

Rose, Mary - 3 p.m., Mollohan Cemetery, Birch River.

Smith, Dorothy - 11 a.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens.