In a quest to eradicate racism in America, Bethany College has removed late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s name from its health center building. And a student at Marshall University has a petition calling for the removal of his name from the school’s science building. These nihilistic efforts demonstrate an ignorance of not only West Virginia history, but of Sen. Byrd’s life and career.
When Byrd came to the Senate in 1959, West Virginia had the economy of a third-world country. The rise of oil and gas and the mechanization of the coal mines had displaced more than 100,000 coal miners. Poverty and hunger were rampant throughout the state. After a tour of the state’s coal fields in August 1960, a Washington Post reporter wrote, “tens of thousands of Americans live in appalling poverty. Live? No, they hardly exist.”
The federal government was no help. In 1960, West Virginia received less money from the federal government than any other state. During the 1960 presidential primary in the state, John F. Kennedy called West Virginia, the land “the federal government forgot.”
The good people of West Virginia know how hard Sen. Byrd worked to change that. It was recognized as well by President Barack Obama at the senator’s memorial service. President Obama reminded West Virginians: “Giving you hope was [Byrd’s] greatest achievement. Hope in the form of new jobs and industries. Hope through roads and research centers, schools and scholarships, health clinics and industrial parks.”
The movement to remove Sen. Byrd’s name, no doubt, stems from the misunderstanding of his brief membership in the Ku Klux Klan and the unique role of the Klan at that time in southern West Virginia.
In the 1920s, more than half of the Klan’s 5 million members lived, not in the rural south, but in Northern urban areas. In his book, “The Ku Klux Klan in the City,” Kenneth Jackson notes that the Klan of the 1920s was a more complex and multifaceted organization than people assume and “it will not suffice to dismiss the secret order as a simple manifestation of ignorance and bigotry.” It rose in different sections of the country for different reasons.
I discuss the rise of the KKK in southern West Virginia during this period in two of my books. For now, let me just call attention to two stories from the New York Times to illustrate. On April 16, 1922, the New York Times reported that “striking miners of the New River coal fields” were joining a “secret organization … patterned along the lines of the Ku Klux Klan” in their struggles with the coal companies in the Winding Gulf region. In other words, the KKK in southern West Virginia coal fields served as a surrogate union, and Byrd’s step-father, who was a member, took young Robert with him to the meetings.
In August 26, 1925, the New York Times reported that in McDowell County the Klan performed the funeral services for Samuel Obre, a Black miner who had been killed in a mine accident. The southern West Virginia KKK was not an anti-Black, racist group.
With this background in the Klan, in 1941 Byrd did help organize a chapter of the KKK and he did, initially, try to recruit members, for which he was named a “Kleagle.” But Byrd soon realized this Klan of the 1940s was not his father’s non-racist, surrogate union KKK. After listening to a national organizer who came to West Virginia to help expand the newly formed chapter, Byrd declared: “I was not aware of the principles [of the KKK] as they exist today.” He immediately disavowed his membership and dropped out.
Throughout his life, and even now, that brief episode casts a shadow on his political career. It has caused people who should know better, to overlook his real record on civil rights and race.
Byrd’s actual record on race and civil rights is far different than what most people have been told. When Byrd came to the Senate in 1959, only 19 of the 534 congressional offices were integrated. Byrd’s office was one of them. It was one of the few, if not the only one in the Senate. For this he was acknowledged in Ebony magazine.
During the Kennedy Administration, Byrd secured the appointment of the first Black American to the position of assistant U.S. attorney in Charleston, C.W. Dickenson. With his patronage powers, he desegregated the Capitol Hill police force as he appointed the first two Blacks to the force. As chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia, he forced the metropolitan police department to hire more Black police officers. Six years before affirmative action and foreseeing the problems between the African American community and police forces today, Byrd declared: “A city that is 62% Negros needs more than 21% of its police force to be Negroes.”
Byrd did have constitutional concerns about the 1964 Civil Rights bill, which led him to vote against it. But this did not mean he was siding with Southern segregationists who cited the Constitution in an effort to defeat the bill. On the contrary, Byrd proposed several ways the Senate could amend the bill to make it, in his view, constitutional. He did conduct a 14-hour talk on the Senate floor, usually described as a filibuster. But it was not a filibuster per se, because he spoke overnight and did not block or hold up any legislation. Honoring the agreement he made with Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, he ended his talk about a half hour before the scheduled vote on the bill, so it could proceed. Nor was it a racist rant like his critics claim; it reads like a lawyer’s brief, as he cited case law after case law in an effort to show his colleagues where he thought sections were unconstitutional. It was a difficult, principled opposition.
Because of his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights law, critics assume that he opposed all civil rights legislation during this period. This simply is not true. As a member of the House of Representatives, he voted for the 1957 Civil Rights Act, the first civil rights law since Reconstruction. He voted for the 1960 Civil Rights Act; in fact, he co-sponsored Sen. John F. Kennedy’s amendment that put the teeth into the law. He supported the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which provided the first open housing law of the 20th century. According to the Los Angeles Times, Byrd used his mastery of the Senate rules to secure enactment of the 1975 Voting Rights Act.
Time and again, Sen. Byrd used his power and expertise to champion civil rights legislation. He also led the effort to secure federal funding for the memorial for Martin Luther King Jr. on the National Mall. As a result, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, praised Byrd as “One of the most knowledgeable, dedicated, and principled lawmakers in our history…. He set the very highest standards of decency and dignity for his colleagues.”
Sen. Byrd was not perfect. He was not infallible. But then, who is? As a greater power one once said, let the person without sin “cast the first stone.” For more than a half century, Sen. Byrd served the people of West Virginia, all the people of West Virginia, with unmatched dedication. And as civil rights icon, Congressman John Lewis observed, Sen. Byrd was “one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I have ever seen.”
These are turbulent times. But we should not allow the passions and distortions of the moment to obscure the true legacy of Robert C. Byrd.
Keep his name on those buildings.