America Mourns the Death of a Klansman

This morning, Robert Byrd (D-WV), the longest serving senator ever, died. And now America goes on to discuss his legacy. However, Byrd was probably the most famous Klansman ever (more so than David Duke), and he’s probably the only former Kleagle (Klan recruiter) to get the adulation that Byrd will likely get.

Sometime in the 40s, Byrd wrote that he would rather see Old Glory tattered and trampled than a negro serve in the military. During that time, as mentioned, he was a Klan recruiter and served as his local chapter’s leader.

In the early 2000s, he made some comment in a magazine interview deriding what he called “white niggers.”

He said his vote against the invasion of Iraq was the proudest moment of his career. I guess it would be improvident for him to claim his 14 hour filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act or vote against the 1965 Voting Rights Act were prouder moments. Even though they likely were for him.

Or maybe a prouder moment was when he played a Confederate officer in Gods and Generals despite hailing from a state that specifically seceded from the Confederacy to remain a part of the Union.

And despite it all, we will get newscasts and stories honoring the man. At least now he can live out his dream and be a ghost.

How many members of Congress in Bible Belt states voted for the Civil Rights Act? Wasn’t their job to represent the people who voted them into office? When holding political leaders accountable for racist policies, where in time do you draw the line? If you don’t, do you judge George Washington as a racist scumbag who embraced human slavery?

Byrd’s comments When Congress approved the invasion of Iraq:

Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination.

His comments when the funding was approved:

The right to ask questions, debate, and dissent is under attack. The drums of war are beaten ever louder in an attempt to drown out those who speak of our predicament in stark terms…This huge spending bill—$87 billion—has been rushed through this chamber in just one month…without a single outside witness called to challenge the administration’s line.

When one of them is a former Klan leader and recruiter, who specifically wrote “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,” I think it’s fair to hold him accountable to those views and not merely acting as representative of his constituency.

That was the prevailing sentiment among his peers at the time, when he was in his 20’s, pumping gas for a living. Those comments and his klan membership took place more than 20 years before he became a Senator. His views were just the product of his environment; at some point he realized he was wrong and he was more than happy to apologize. If you were brought up in a racist, bigoted environment, I wonder how different your interpretation of his legacy would be.

edit: The second Klan (of which Byrd was a member) was a formal fraternal organization, with a national and state structure. At its peak in the mid-1920s, the organization claimed to include about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men. 40% of males were members in some areas.

It was most certainly not the prevailing sentiment at the time that blacks should not be allowed to serve in the military. They had fought in every American war since the revolutionary war, and there were over 100,000 blacks serving in the military during World War II. This is not to say they were treated remotely equally, but the prevailing sentiment at the time was that they could serve in the military, but they had to remain in segregated units. It was only a few years after World War II that the military was integrated in 1948. Thus your statement is completely untrue: Robert Byrd was a vicious reactionary even in his own times.

That’s not to say that a vicious reactionary is incapable of doing or saying something we might agree with in another context; people are, after not, not mere caricatures who are either 100% bad or 100% good. Still, I think it’s fair to remind everyone the kinds of things this guy stood for and that we shouldn’t just merely celebrate every single person’s life after their passing because they served in the government.

He also joined in 1942. Estimates from 1930s put membership at around 30,000 and on the decline. It’s safe to say that when he joined in 1942, the group had fewer than 30,000. That would be nowhere near 15% of the nation’s eligible population. It was a fringe group then. The group most definitely engaged in domestic terrorism at the time too. I’m not saying Byrd ever actually did anything, but he did associate with a group that was more than just a “fraternal organization.”

The Klan may not have been at the top of its game in the 40s, but that doesn’t mean that racism wasn’t alive and well. Racism persists to this day and the social unrest in the 60s that resulted from desegregation came from somewhere. I don’t disagree with what 984 is saying about how it was wrong for him to associate with the Klan, but I disagree with his claims against how Byrd’s views were unusual / unrepresentative.

A lot of us have done stupid things in our youth. I don’t think its fair to be judged solely on these when one has worked hard to do something good for other people. Whether or not his legacy is “good” with how he pumped billions into West Virginia is a different topic.

This also isn’t to say really bad calls like Klan membership and involvement should be forgotten, but its fair to keep an eye on the big picture.