Hoodwinked: Race and Robert ByrdWhere's the Follow-Up From the Press?

This is the second of a three-part series exploring the life of Sen. Robert Byrd, the race issue and the politics of deception. Part one is available here. Byrd’s Senate office was presented with a list of detailed questions prior to the publication of this series. The response is available here.

Interestingly, neither the West Virginia media nor the national press have properly pursued Sen. Robert Byrd’s obvious dodge of his racist letters to U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo and KKK Grand Wizard Samuel Green. They may mention them in passing — but they rarely have asked follow-up questions or demand of Byrd a more complete answer regarding these stinging, racial epithets that they would expect from others.

If a Republican U.S. senator made these kinds of remarks in a letter, no matter how long ago — and if that senator had not expressly acknowledged the letter and apologized profusely for it after having 60 years to do so — he or she would be exposed by members of the press, the Democratic Party and the NAACP. And rightly so.

As for the statements themselves, the fact that Byrd harbored racist sentiments against desegregating the U.S. armed forces in the 1940s may not be all that surprising, given his upbringing. Byrd may indeed have learned race prejudice early, as his stepfather who raised him was, after all, a member of the Klan himself.1

However, what is most disturbing about Byrd’s rhetoric on desegregating the troops is his extreme vitriol — and his refusal to apologize for it, even to this day.2 Moreover, these two letters, written in 1945 and 1946, again prove the lie Byrd repeated over and over in 1952 when he told voters in that pivotal election year that he was done with the Klan and its beliefs.

In fact, Sen. Bilbo and Imperial Wizard Green could not have espoused the Klan position on desegregation any better than Byrd had done.

Byrd’s melodramatic streak, long observed in his lengthy orations from the Senate floor over the years, is on display in the Bilbo letter, much to the amusement of Byrd’s critics back in West Virginia. They note that Byrd’s emphatic statement that he would “rather die” than to serve in a desegregated army has little currency given his own unwillingness or inability to serve in the armed forces during World War II even before desegregation was on the table.3

Nevertheless, because Byrd has never cleared the air regarding those brutal racial epithets contained in his letter to Senator Bilbo, those acidic words used by Byrd to describe so many of America’s veterans have hung over his head like a funky cloud of sulphur, derived from his own young tortured soul. Extraordinarily noteworthy is the fact that, despite repeated requests for the senator to come meet with and apologize directly to those African-American vets who still live in West Virginia as some of his own constituents, Byrd refuses to show.4

Again, the state press corps in West Virginia and national media have failed to follow up. No other nationally known, powerful politician in America has avoided real scrutiny of such racially motivated remarks or gotten by with a refusal to acknowledge facts like these and then failed to apologize for them.

The public is within its rights to ask why that is. Otherwise, how can we really know that Byrd has given up his racial views? If he has, what’s another apology, this time a more specific one, made directly to the African-American vets he has slurred in the past? And how about one more apology for misleading the West Virginia voters in 1952, saying that he had been done with the Klan and all it stood for since 1943, when the letters from 1945 and 1946 clearly show otherwise.

Finally, where is the accountability within the Democratic Party, with all its support from African-Americans, when it comes to Byrd’s racial slurs? Why don’t progressives like Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama urge their beloved Senate colleague to apologize once and for all for sentiments like this?

Is it alright when a Democrat does it? Why the double standard? Is power the only thing that really matters? Are there no standards of decency and decorum applicable to all of our political leaders, Republican and Democrat?

Byrd: The Democrats’ Racial Jack in the Box

Despite earning a law degree from American University while a congressman, despite traveling all over the world as a U.S. senator, Byrd never gets too far away from his upbringing in a Klansman’ s house.

Byrd’s recent embarrassments in the language department include his return to deepest Africa, as mentioned in his autobiography on the subject of crime: "One’s life is probably in no greater danger in the jungles of deepest Africa than in the jungles of America’s large cities," Byrd writes.5 Should he really be the one expressing it quite that way, given his past?

One of Byrd’s most sensational slips occurred in a now famous interview with then Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow. In that interview that ultimately turned to some questions on race — never Byrd’s strong suit — the senior senator from West Virginia famously declared that he had known plenty of “white niggers” in his day.6

Thus, Byrd managed in one fell swoop to offend both white and blacks! Ironically, Byrd may have been trying to suggest that there are miscreants in every race, but that point was entirely lost by his use of perhaps the ultimate taboo word on national television. If he had used the most blue language offered in an X-rated film on a Sunday morning talk show, it would not have made more of a splash.

One couldn’t help but feel sorry for a stunned Tony Snow — or Byrd’s staffers who had some serious damage control for several days after that. However, Byrd’s staffers, of which there have been a glaring lack of African-Americans over 50 years, are increasingly accustomed to cleaning up the Senator’s messes on the race issue.

But Byrd has always saved his most strident hypocrisy and poor logic for the floor of the U.S. Senate — a place where Byrd literally has had a blind woman and her seeing-eye dog summarily dismissed out of his own peculiar sense of decorum. It is also the same hallowed Senate floor where, as late as 1988, Byrd has seen fit to wax nostalgically about the “moving” arguments made against anti-lynching legislation by another one of his segregationist heroes, U.S. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia.7

Who else but Byrd could get away with calling anyone’s opposition to anti-lynching legislation “moving?” And as recently as 1988? As usual, the press has never followed up this kind of “acting out” by Byrd, who consequently has been able to air out his white supremacist attitudes as publicly as if he were waving bright red semaphore flags at us.

Tomorrow read the third installment of this three-part series about Byrd’s incredible filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights bill.

1 Robert C. Byrd, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields (Morgantown, WV: WVU Press 2005), 52
2 James Tolbert, Letter to the Editor, Charleston Daily Mail, 1/1/99, 5-A
3 Byrd 37
4 Tolbert 5-A
5 Byrd 205
6 Wall Street Journal Online, OpinionJournal, 3/7/01.
7 Congressional Record, Vol. 13, 2/1/88, 499-500.