This is the last installment 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.
Sen. Robert Byrd tells us in his autobiography that his decision to take on the key role as floor manager for the segregationists during the intense Senate debates over the 1964 Civil Rights Act was motivated by a concern about “federalism” issues, that is, the proper role of the state and federal governments.1
Byrd certainly mentions these federalism issues. However, just as with the absence from his recent autobiography of the letters to U.S. Sen. Theodore Bilbo and KKK Grand Wizard Samuel Green (read part one and part two of this series), something large is missing in the same book about his filibuster, this important hinge of his Senate career.
Byrd takes only a couple of pages to discuss perhaps the most huge and significant battle he waged, one for which he will always be remembered.2 Conveniently missing from this section of his autobiography are the many decidedly racist observations Byrd also uses to make his case against the landmark bill, one that guaranteed African-Americans’ basic voting rights, as well as the right to patronize formerly “whites only” establishments.
In one typical tirade as the floor manager for the segregationists, Byrd actually made the argument that the writers of the Declaration of Independence simply “did not intend that these words should be taken literally to be true” when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” While invoking this hallowed line from the Declaration, Byrd says:
“Men and races of men differ in appearance, ways, physical power, mental capacity, creativity, and vision. One man is born blind. Another is born lame. Geniuses are not made; they are born. Between two individuals, as between two races, there are broad differences.”3
Byrd’s “logic” here is laughable if it were not so serious. Jefferson’s statement in the Declaration of Independence is not about each human being’s abilities. Rather, it is a declaration and affirmation of the most basic, God-given human rights inherent to all men and women from all races — just by virtue of their being human beings.
Byrd need only have read the very next few words after “all men are created equal” in the Declaration to figure that out: “…being endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights ….”4 Only a former Klansman could take the Declaration’s most noble sentiment, drag it around in the dirt of racism — and then imagine that he had improved upon Jefferson.
That the founders of our country did not have the will or ability to make things right for the slaves of 1789 has not taken away the power of Jefferson’s words altogether. In fact, these words — “all men are created equal” — became the touchstone of Abraham Lincoln’s later debates with Stephen Douglass, not to mention modern-day civil rights activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Byrd found King and his successful non-violent civil rights tactics particularly disagreeable. In fact, Byrd even volunteered to help discredit King, as Byrd was worried about a successful non-violent protest coming to Washington. Byrd initiated contact with the FBI in early 1968, suggesting that he give a speech condemning King on the floor of the Senate. Byrd said that it was time Dr. King “met his Waterloo,” but, interestingly, the FBI declined to avail themselves of Byrd’s “services.”5
Byrd’s 1964 filibuster goes from bad to worse after desecrating Jefferson’s most memorable line. At one point, continuing to emphasize what he believed was a fundamental inequality between the races, Byrd actually introduced a “study” by a Frank Boaz, author of the book “The Mind of Primitive Man.” The book certainly was primitive, making the case at one point that white brains actually weighed a few grams more than black brains, with the resulting conclusion that whites were necessarily more intelligent. Byrd does not tell us how many brains were studied in this particular effort. 6
For all those who have had to endure hearing Byrd play the scholar on the Romans and Constitutional law, here is proof that at least Byrd’s scientific tastes appear to run towards what he wants to believe, rather than to any kind of serious inquiry. Moreover, what does it say about a sitting senator, at age 46 in 1964, introducing this kind of “evidence” into the permanent record of the U.S. Senate?
The contempt Byrd shows the non-violent civil rights protestors in his filibuster is bizarre by modern standards. After all, here were the protestors who resisted the path others took towards violence to achieve their goals, sparing the country much bloodshed.
However, Byrd gave no quarter, calling into question the non-violent leaders’ commitment to non-violence. What was Byrd’s logic here? Follow this logic if you can: Byrd tries to insinuate that the civil rights leaders weren’t teaching non-violence because they dared to give instructions to their adherents as to how they might avoid permanent injury by telling women to curl up to avoid injuries to their internal organs from any kicks and telling all to put their hands over their heads and faces from any blows from others.7
Over and over again, Byrd’s segregationist arguments leave the reader in disbelief. Is Byrd really that far gone? Does he think the public will find these arguments compelling, even an audience of forty years ago?
Byrd also engages in the lowest form of stereotyping in order to attack the public accommodations portions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Page after page of his filibuster deals with examples of black-on-white crime, particularly African-American men robbing and raping white women. By doing so, Byrd arguably did more than any other national figure of his day to reinforce racial stereotypes — all from the Senate floor that he claims to cherish.8
Moreover, for a man who enjoys invoking scripture almost as much as he does the Constitution, Byrd shows that he can misuse holy writ with the best of them. At one point in his filibuster, he quotes from the book of Leviticus to prove that the races
must stay separated:
“In Leviticus, chapter 19, verse 19, we find the words:
Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let
thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt
not sow they field with mingled seed.”
God’s statutes, therefore, recognize the natural order of
the separateness of things.”9
Obviously, with a stretch like that, Byrd proves he is no theologian.
But perhaps the most obviously racist arguments Byrd uses in his filibuster come when he keeps trying to establish the inequality of the races, whether through the wild misinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence, the stereotyping with a majority of black-on-white crime statistics, or just a flat-out, announced opinion on his part of the utter significance of any differences between the races.
At the end of wading through Byrd’s chatter throughout his filibuster, a single question emerges: Why is Byrd so obsessed with whatever he perceives to be the differences between the races instead of wishing for people of all races a basic threshold of civil rights?
However one looks at Senator Byrd’s record, whether one wants to give him a break for an imperfect upbringing or environment, his record of misleading people about an important part of his Senate career is disturbing. What may be more perplexing is that a man with so many obvious and repeated actions and gaffes has been able to keep one step ahead of the posse for so long — thanks to the limpness of the state press of West Virginia and the American national press.
Imagine if you will a man who had been not only a member but a highly successful recruiter and leader of our nation’s most notorious homegrown terrorist organization. When confronted about this activity during his first major run for public office, he misleads, obfuscates, and wriggles out of a straight answer on the subject. Is this a description of David Duke?
No. Duke never got as far as Robert Byrd. On a national level, Byrd has done far more in his efforts to hurt minority rights than anything David Duke has done, simply because of his ability to get elected repeatedly, entitling him to a platform on the floor of the Senate to attempt to persuade us all towards his line of thinking on race issues. Furthermore, despite episodes like the 1964 Civil Rights filibuster, Byrd has been rewarded by his party for major positions like Senate majority whip and Senate majority leader.10
Byrd will rank far beyond anything David Duke could hope to be remembered for among the annals of American white supremacists. Name one other national political leader, in either party, who quite nearly pulled off denying more than 10 million American citizens their most basic civil rights? In 1964, Byrd eagerly volunteered to lead the effort in the Senate to keep America forever segregated, misusing Leviticus along the way, comparing both African-Americans and white Americans to barnyard animals who need to be kept apart.
With the help of his Democratic southern segregationist senator friends, Byrd actually succeeded in denying those millions of African-American citizens their rights for several months, thanks to his efforts before and during his filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. African-Americans had waited almost 100 years since the end of the Civil War, but Byrd decided all by himself that they had not waited long enough.
Only the equally determined efforts of so many of those same African-Americans, protesting hard for their rights as Americans, managed to defeat Byrd. Along with friendly whites like U.S. Sen. Hubert Humphrey and plenty of Republican senators from across the aisle, they finally quashed Byrd’s efforts to keep minorities forever as truly second-class citizens in the land of the free.
Humphrey finally collected the votes necessary in the Senate to override Byrd’s lengthy, grotesque attempt to deny so many Americans their most basic civil rights. However, Byrd got in one more sustained 14-hour speech assailing the main parts of the bill on behalf of racists and white supremacists everywhere.11
Robert C. Byrd was white racism’s loudest voice then, more than any other public leader. He shouted their doctrines from a more prestigious stage than any lowly Klansman could ever enjoy. At least in terms of public policy, this was perhaps the high watermark of the Klan and white racism — in a way the last shot of that band of guerilla ex-Confederates from the Civil War, nearly a century after Appomattox.
The Klan and its sympathizers had managed to get one of its own in as far as the floor of the U.S. Senate, and he confirmed its trust in him when he rose to defend that point of view. The nation had to listen to its arguments, its race hatred, its twisted point of view one more time for all the old times. Byrd was, after all, a U.S. senator and now the floor manager for the other point of view.
And so the nation considered what the angry racists had to say through their shrill mouthpiece from southern West Virginia. But when Byrd sat down at the end of his one-man, 14-hour segregationist marathon that day, the 1964 Civil Rights Act instantly passed in a rebuff to Byrd — and to the joy of African-Americans across the country. America could look itself in the mirror a little better again. This legislation hardly stopped racism or led immediately to harmony between the races. However, it was a decisive break with the past Byrd represented. It was a start.12
No wonder that Byrd never mentions the controversial Bilbo and Green letters nor the backwards race arguments he employed in his filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in his new autobiography. Had the truth about Byrd’s racism been fully known in 1952, he might never have become a household name, might never have been in a position to wield so much influence on the nation.
What other U.S. senator, in either party, has been given such a long pass like this? Before he leaves the Senate, Byrd must answer to the American public more fully regarding the questions surrounding his recurring struggle with the race issue. After all, he was the point man for segregationists in his 1964 filibuster.
Understanding Byrd — his motivations, his power plays, and his willingness to give voice to the white supremacist cause on the floor of the U.S. Senate — will reveal not only much about the senator from West Virginia: it may tell us a lot about our own struggle as a nation as we continue to grapple with the issues surrounding race.
The ultimate defeat of Byrd’s incredibly lengthy filibuster of that landmark civil rights bill shows us positively how far we have come as a nation on the question of race. However, his continued presence in the Senate, four decades later, may tell us how far we have yet to go — and perhaps how much our press has let us down.
1 Robert C. Byrd, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields (Morgantown, WV: WVU Press, 2005) 172
2 Id. 170-173
3 Congressional Record—Senate, 5/1/64, 9825
4 The Declaration of Independence
5 Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book Three, Final Report, of the Select Committee to Study Government Operations, with Respect to Intelligence Activities of the United States Senate, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: A Case Study, April 23, 1976, 426-27.
6 Congressional Record — Senate, 6/9/64, 13213
7 Id. 13140
8 Id. 13201-05
9 Id. 13207
10 Eric Pianin, A Senator’s Shame, Washington Post, 6/19/05, A 01
11 U.S. Senate Website on Civil Rights Filibuster