This is the first of a three-part series exploring the life of Sen. Robert Byrd, the race issue and the politics of deception. Byrd’s Senate office was presented with a list of detailed questions prior to the publication of this series. The response is available here.
In his recently-published, 871-page tome, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.) admits that it was his decision to join the Ku Klux Klan that started his career in politics. While Byrd makes a general apology about what he calls a “foolish mistake,” he also seems nearly nostalgic as he recounts some of those halcyon days as a young Klan leader, first as a Klan recruiter or “Kleagle” and ultimately as the local Klavern’ s leader or “Exalted Cyclops.”1
For example, Byrd freely admits his joy at having an important Klan leader from Arlington, Va., recognize his leadership skills. And he boasts of single-handedly recruiting 150 local men to join his new Klavern.2
Early in this autobiography, Byrd says that in late 1941 or early 1942 he initiated contact with the Klan through reading a newspaper advertisement. Byrd says that this ad had the name and address of the top national officer of the KKK, whom Byrd identifies as Dr. Samuel Green of Atlanta.3
This is the first bit of obfuscation we encounter in Byrd’s book on the racism/KKK issue, but it is an important one as will soon be evident. Dr. Green was indeed the Klan’s top national officer, or "Grand Dragon” — but not until four years later in 1946.4 In fact, Byrd likely could not have seen any advertisement with Green’s name in it at all in 1941 or 1942, and certainly not as the Klan’s top officer as Byrd mentions, since Green was merely a state Klansman in Georgia, rising through the ranks there.5
The Two Letters
However, we know that Byrd wrote at least one letter to Green at a much later date in 1946, again the same year that Green became the Klan’s Grand Dragon, its top national officer.6
This politically troublesome letter from Byrd to Green nearly knocked Byrd off of the Democratic ticket in 1952 during his first run for Congress. If this letter’s contents and significance had not been out-shouted by Byrd back then, the self-styled “Soul of the Senate” might have had to go back to his grocery store in tiny Sophia, W.Va.
Why? Because curious voters across his West Virginia congressional district had just heard about Byrd’s KKK background which, in a half-North, half-South state, could be quite negative even back in 1952. West Virginia, with its relatively small minority population, had not gone through much of the turmoil between the races other states further south had endured.7
The inner workings of the Klan were unfamiliar to many West Virginia voters, though certainly the Klan was known for its racist doctrines and its negative reputation. Certainly, it was at least a secret a politician hoped would not come up while campaigning. However, Byrd was apparently well-known enough as a Klan leader in southern West Virginia that word was got out about it.
While an occasional, local politician may have had a Klan past, this was the first congressional candidate in memory to have this kind of outing. The widely-respected Democratic Gov. Okey Patteson urged Byrd to drop out of the race — no doubt out of fear of what the former Klan leader would do to the rest of the state Democratic Party’s ticket that year.8
However, Byrd refused to leave the ticket and instead worked overtime to assure some anxious West Virginia voters that this race problem of his was all behind him now. As he put it to political crowds and reporters back in that crucial campaign year for him of 1952, he had left the Klan and all it stood for back in 1943.9
However, no record exists from Byrd that he actually made a formal break with the Klan at all. He just tells us, again in his autobiography, that he had to move to find work in Baltimore.10
The race of 1952 was touch and go for Byrd, as he had a unique battle on his hands: his own public words of assurance on the race question vs. his own written words in a personal letter to the nation’s top Klansman.11
The actual contents of the 1946 letter Byrd wrote to Green was potentially devastating as it contradicted Byrd’s recent statements in the press that he had been out of the Klan since 1943 and had lost all interest in it. For in the Green letter — written a full three years after Byrd supposedly had abandoned the Klan and its principles — Byrd presented his Klan credentials as a former Kleagle.
Byrd then urged Green in the strongest terms to bring the Klan back to West Virginia and all other states as it was needed “now more than ever,” adding that he was personally “anxious to see its rebirth in West Virginia.”12 That hardly sounds like a man who had given it all up in 1943.
Did Byrd get it half right and is just having memory problems in writing his recent autobiography? He acknowledges writing to Dr. Green but at the very least appears to have gotten the date wrong by at least four years — not 1941 or 1942 but in reality 1946.
What seems far more likely, given Byrd’s razor-sharp memory on other matters of importance to his political life contained in his autobiography, is that he wants readers to believe that he is “owning up” to corresponding with Dr. Green but only when he was a young, impressionable man in his early 20s, not a 28-year-old budding politician who had foresworn his previous allegiance to the Klan.
In short, he is sticking to the clearly false story he told in 1952 to the voters, namely that he had severed ties with the Klan and its beliefs in 1943. However, the letter to Dr. Green in 1946 clearly shows that Byrd was an unapologetic racist years after he “disavowed” the Klan and its racist doctrines.
Simply put, Byrd appears as one who wants to put his racist ways and his leadership in the nation’s most notorious homegrown terrorist organization in a neat little pre-1946 box. Why? Because 1946 was the year he formally started his political career, running for a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates.13 Obviously, he wanted to say in 1952 that, by the time he launched his local political career in 1946 as a state legislature candidate, he was through with the Klan — and all that it stood for.
Byrd was putting on the equivalent of his “Sunday best” for the folks across his congressional district, appearing to discarding the rags of racism.
What we can now see as Byrd’s strained logic regarding his KKK past worked. In 1952, a forgiving West Virginia public bought his groceries on this one in the hopes that their new congressman had turned over a new leaf.14 Those who had released his letter to Green in 1946 had been outrun somehow by the notoriously hard-working campaigner from Raleigh County.
However, West Virginians have had other opportunities to begin to wonder exactly what they have as their now senior U.S. senator, particularly on the race issue.
For example, in other campaigns and again recently, another post-1943 racist letter from Byrd emerged, this time one written to U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, one of the most hardcore racists of his day.15
The letter occurs at the same time as the one to Dr. Green, from that important crucible of Byrd’s life: his late 20s right at the end of World War II. Byrd had somehow managed to avoid military service during World War II, working for a little over a year as a welder in the Baltimore shipyards. He then drifted with his wife and two daughters down to Tampa, Fla., for a brief stint to finish in some shipyards there until the war ended in 1945.16
Perhaps Byrd was trying to strangely assert his white manhood in writing another controversial letter while so many other American men — including tens of thousands of African-Americans — were returning from actively fighting in Europe or the Pacific theater of the war. History will require of Byrd some kind of extraordinary excuse to explain the letter he sent in late 1945 to Sen. Bilbo. Like the 1946 letter to Green, Byrd fails to mention this letter in his new autobiography, another Byrd letter that is firmly established in the historical record.17
The comments Byrd made in that letter are among the most coarse and hateful words ever said about African-Americans by any modern American political leader.
The remarks would make a Confederate general blush. Appalachian author Harry Caudill’s concept of there being in our midst “contemporary ancestors,” living relics of another time, hits one with full force when hearing Byrd rant about the integration of the American armed forces.18 Byrd wrote to Bilbo that he would never fight under the American flag:
“[W]ith 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.”19
Ironically, Byrd had already taken himself out of ever having to serve beside any fellow American of any color. While hundreds of thousands of black and white Americans fought for the United States during World War II, Byrd was safely opting out of combat, working in the Baltimore shipbuilding yards. So it certainly appears to be a case of “big talk” from Byrd, along with its clearly racist content.
Certainly, these are not the kind of words by which one builds one’s legacy. This may be why Byrd has taken a strange middle road when responding to the Bilbo letter when a brave reporter brings it up. The letter, like the one to Dr. Green, is clearly Byrd’s; thus he does not deny writing it. However, he claims to have “completely forgotten that letter” when he was asked about it by a New York Times reporter in 1971.20 Byrd tries to distance himself from the remarks in the letter any way he possibly can and for good reason — so that he doesn’t have to admit that he said the remarks and therefore endure the political humiliation of apologizing for them.
That Byrd would forget a letter he had written to a famous U.S. senator, let alone the grand wizard of the KKK, is hard to believe. But the press has never pressed him on the point. So it is that one of the most powerful men in America is able to tiptoe away from some of the most mean-spirited, racist remarks ever uttered by a U.S. senator — and all without having to even so much as apologize for them, like anyone else would be required to do these days. What makes Byrd so special?
The ramifications of letting Byrd off the hook for his racist talk comes full circle later in his Senate career when he tries his best to deny more than 10 million African-Americans some of their basic civil rights, rights they have waited 100 years since the end of the Civil War to have guaranteed by their federal government. Byrd, having gotten away with Klan involvement and the ugliest of racist remarks will now have his chance to leave a permanent badge of inferiority on African-Americans in his great filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.
Tomorrow read the second installment in this three-part series about the media’s enabling of Byrd’s ongoing problems with race in America.
1 Robert C. Byrd, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, 2005), 53
3 Id., 52
4 Michael and Judy Ann Newton, The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia, (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991), 238
6 Id. 87
7 Eric Pianin, "A Senator’s Shame," Washington Post, 6/19/2005, A 01.
10 Byrd 53
11 Id. 51
12 Newton 86
13 Byrd 42
14 Pianin A 01
15 Newton 50
16 Byrd 37
17 Pianin A 01
18 Harry Caudill, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, (Ashland, Ky: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2001) 77
19 Pianin A 01
20 Newton 87