The evolution of Robert Byrd's racial politics

OPINION - Byrd renounced his racist past, demonstrating that people have the power to change and move beyond hate...

When Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) died on June 28 at the age of 92, he was the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history. In 2006, he was reelected for an unprecedented ninth term in office. And he was elected by his colleagues to more leadership positions than any senator ever. With 18,000 votes cast and a career attendance record of 98 percent, he had a proud record of achievement. But he also had a disturbing history as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd would later renounce his racist past, demonstrating to us that people have the power to change and move beyond their hate.

In his final years, Sen. Byrd was frail, in poor health and confined to a wheelchair. Yet, he was still on call to vote for President Obama’s health care reform bill and help ensure its passage. In his early years, it is safe to say, Byrd was sick with the disease of racism, segregationist sentiment and a hatred of black people. At age 24, he joined the Klan in 1942 and rose to positions of leadership within the white supremacist organization. He vowed to fellow segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi) that “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side… 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

[NBCVIDEO source=”UNIWIDGET” video=”″ w=”400″ h=”400″]

Like other bigoted Dixiecrat lawmakers, Sen. Byrd tried his hardest to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and did so for 14 hours on the Senate floor. And he opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act, though he favored the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Furthermore, the senator from West Virginia opposed the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the nation’s first African-American Supreme Court justice. Byrd even went to then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover — who participated in ruining the careers and lives of many black civil rights leaders – to see if Marshall had any ties to Communists that could torpedo his nomination.

And yet, Robert Byrd evolved—he changed for the good. He apologized for his intolerant past and declared that he had been wrong. Although he voted against Justice Marshall for the Supreme Court seat, years later he also voted with 45 other Democrats against the candidacy of conservative Clarence Thomas. Byrd did not like Thomas’s assertion that he was the victim of a “high-tech lynching of uppity blacks,” and found the introduction of race into the Senate proceedings offensive. Most of all, he believed Anita Hill’s allegations against Thomas. Hindsight is 20-20 for those who were misguided enough to support Clarence Thomas, but looking back nearly 20 years, the senator had a very good point.

Sen. Byrd displayed a mix of conservative and liberal points of view in his later years. Remarkably, though, his politics resonated with the African-American community and came out on the right side of issues that are of concern to black voters. Byrd enjoyed a perfect 100 percent rating from the NAACP. He proposed $10 million to fund a Martin Luther King National Memorial in Washington, DC. The senator received a 67 percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union, and a 65 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters on environmental issues. He forcefully and eloquently voiced his opposition to the war in Iraq under President George W. Bush, and voted against the confirmation of Obama’s controversial treasury secretary Timothy Geithner.

We should condemn the man’s racist past, but honor his recent accomplishments. And we should respect his ability and willingness to transform his mind and move beyond his circumstances and upbringing. Robert Byrd did not die as a leader of the Klan, because he had buried that racist past a long time ago. However, he did leave us as a leader for all Americans. So, let us give him a proper goodbye.