This uncomfortable fact first came out in 1952, when Byrd, then a three-term state legislator, ran for the U.S. House. He addressed the charges by acknowledging that he had been a Klan member from "mid-1942 to early 1943" and explaining that he had joined "because it offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed to communism." Byrd said at the time that he had quit the KKK in less than a year and never had any interest again.
Byrd's story got him through the primary, but in the general election campaign a letter surfaced that Byrd had written in 1946 to the Klan's Imperial Wizard. That was long after Byrd had vowed he was finished with the Klan. In the letter, Byrd endorsed someone for a leadership post. He also wrote, "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia."
Byrd survived this complete lack of honesty and decency to still whip his Republican opponent. After six years in the House, he won a U.S. Senate seat in 1958. In the course of that campaign, Byrd reportedly stated that the KKK had been unjustly blamed for many acts committed by others.
Many decades later a 1945 letter to Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi was also discovered. The language of that letter is enough to make decent people retch. Byrd argued against integrating the military, saying that he would never fight alongside black soldiers. Placing his bigotry far ahead of his country, Byrd wrote, "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."
So, we know that Byrd's first statements in defense of his involvement in the Ku Klux Klan were untrue. They were also terribly misleading. Many people remain misled. Even today the Almanac of American Politics 2004 is quick to dismiss Byrd's involvement in the KKK, explaining:
Son of a coal miner, he was a welder in wartime shipyards and a meat cutter in a coal company town when he won his seat in the House of Delegates in 1946; he campaigned in every hollow in the county, playing his fiddle and even going to the length of joining the Ku Klux Klan (which he quickly quit and has ever since regretted joining).
The Almanac makes it seem like Byrd joined the KKK innocently, at some campaign stop, like a politician might put on a stupid hat or jacket given to him by a host at a fundraiser, so as not to offend.
But Byrd didn't just join the KKK on a lark. He recruited 150 fellow Klan members and organized a chapter. He became the leader, the "Exalted Cyclops."
Byrd has spoken of his Klan past very little. In 1997, Byrd told young people, "Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena."
Sounds like the bad part of joining the KKK has nothing to do with its message of hatred, just the fact that it would weigh one down as one climbed the ladder of power.
In his new 770-page memoir, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, Byrd writes, "My only explanation for the entire episode is that I was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision — a jejune and immature outlook — seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions."
Byrd wanted to be a big-shot and being an exalted bigot wasn't too high a price to pay. In his defense, Byrd says his Klan chapter never engaged in or preached violence. Really? That's nice. So, Senator, it was all just about never-to-be-realized hatred?
In a 2001 interview the Senator gave to Tony Snow, his continuing difficulty with race became painfully obvious. Snow brought up Byrd's KKK past and asked about race relations. In response, Byrd babbled:
I think . . . I just think . . . we talk so much about it we create somewhat of an illusion . . . uh . . . uh . . . I think we should try to have good will. My old Mom told me, "Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody." We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time . . . it you want to use that word. We all . . . we all just need to work together to make our country a better country. I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much.
Everyone knows that if Senator Byrd had an R by his name, instead if a D, he would have been ridden out of Congress and public life a long time ago. Appropriately. Yet, the former Exalted Cyclops has never provoked any trace of outrage from the media establishment, Democrats, or liberal civil rights groups.
The liberal MoveOn.org recently sent a letter to supporters urging them to contribute to Byrd's 2006 Senate campaign. The letter was signed by none other than Democratic Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, the Senate's only African American. Byrd has even been called "the conscience of the Senate" by some.
That about sums up the problem, without any levity at all.