When Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., was laid to rest in an Arlington cemetery on Tuesday, July 6, his bigoted past was interred with him. In the long span of his life, he demonstrated that people have the power to change and move beyond their hate.
At age 24, Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan, and he rose to positions of leadership within the white supremacist organization. His rhetoric back then, in the 1940s, was appalling. “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side,” he vowed. “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.”
Like other bigoted Dixiecrat lawmakers, 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 black 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.
Byrd displayed a mix of conservative and liberal points of view in his later years. Remarkably, though, he 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. And he proposed $10 million to fund a Martin Luther King National Memorial in Washington, D.C.
On a broad range of issues, he showed great leadership, most notably when he forcefully and eloquently voiced his opposition to President Bush’s war in Iraq.
Byrd was the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history. In 2006, he was re-elected 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.
In his early years, Byrd was sick with the disease of racism. But he cured himself.
Let us bid him a proper farewell.
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