July 3, 2010

The evolution of Robert Byrd's racial politics

Published in theGrio:

When Senator Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) died on June 28 at the age of 92, he was the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history. In 2006, he was reelected 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. But he also had a disturbing history as a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd would later renounce his racist past, demonstrating to us that people have the power to change and move beyond their hate.

In his final years, Sen. Byrd was frail, in poor health and confined to a wheelchair. Yet, he was still on call to vote for President Obama's health care reform bill and help ensure its passage. In his early years, it is safe to say, Byrd was sick with the disease of racism, segregationist sentiment and a hatred of black people. At age 24, he joined the Klan in 1942 and rose to positions of leadership within the white supremacist organization. He vowed to fellow segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi) that "I shall never fight in the armed forces with 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."


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