Senator Byrd and the KKK

Last evening, my colleague Leopold Stotch pointed out the inconsistent treatment in the press of Democrats with a history of racial animus, notably the revered Senator Robert Byrd, a former leader in the Ku Klux Klan, and Republicans like perennial Louisiana candidate David Duke. Jim Henley, reasonably enough, asks, “Did Byrd ever renounce and apologize for his Klan membership or not?”

Certainly, he has. Timothy Noah points out in a December 2002 Slate piece that Byrd has indeed renounced his past. He points out a Byrd interview with CNN’s Bernard Shaw in December 1993:

Q: What has been your biggest mistake and your biggest success?

A: Well, it’s easy to state what has been my biggest mistake. The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I’ve said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear. You will read it in my obituary that I was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Quite rightly so. Michelle Malkin wrote an interesting article on the subject shortly after Byrd’s “Fox News Sunday” appearance in 2001 when he used the term “white nigger” twice with hardly an eye batted from the media or civil rights establishment. She pointed out,

This ex-Klansman wasn’t just a passive member of the nation’s most notorious hate group. According to news accounts and biographical information, Sen. Byrd was a “Kleagle” — an official recruiter who signed up members for $10 a head. He said he joined because it “offered excitement” and because the Klan was an “effective force” in “promoting traditional American values.” Nothing like the thrill of gathering ’round a midnight bonfire, roasting s’mores, tying nooses, and promoting white supremacy with a bunch of your hooded friends.

The ex-Klansman allegedly ended his ties with the group in 1943. He may have stopped paying dues, but he continued to pay homage to the KKK. Republicans in West Virginia discovered a letter Sen. Byrd had written to the Imperial Wizard of the KKK three years after he says he abandoned the group. He wrote: “The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia” and “in every state in the Union.”

The ex-Klansman later filibustered the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act — supported by a majority of those “mean-spirited” Republicans — for more than 14 hours. He also opposed the nominations of the Supreme Court’s two black justices, liberal Thurgood Marshall and conservative Clarence Thomas. In fact, the ex-Klansman had the gall to accuse Justice Thomas of “injecting racism” into the Senate hearings. Meanwhile, author Graham Smith recently discovered another letter Sen. Byrd wrote after he quit the KKK, this time attacking desegregation of the armed forces.

The ex-Klansman vowed never to fight “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.”

Still, in fairness, these events occured before I was born and in a very different era. Certainly, Southern politicians had to lay it on rather thick to appease frightened white voters. Recall George Wallace, after losing his first election, vowing never to be “out niggered” again. He certainly wasn’t, often grandstanding on the racial issue. Later, when the political tides changed, he recanted and begged for forgiveness. Ironically, Wallace won has last term in 1982 against a very strong Republican challenger, by carrying an overwhelming percentage of the black vote.

Another prominent former Klansman to ultimately win the esteem of the Establishment was Alabama’s Hugo Black, who had a distinguished career as a generally liberal Supreme Court Justice. I’m sure there are others who have similarly rehabilitated their image.

Is Byrd still a virulent racist? Honestly, I don’t know. He’s an old man who holds a position of power and he is given a wide berth for minor transgressions, so any recent evidence would likely be hard to come by. While I was a bit taken aback by the “white nigger” comment when I saw the show live, I immediately understood what he was saying and didn’t find it offensive. (The “there are black people and then there are niggers” line of thought didn’t originate with Chris Rock.)

Stotch is right, though, that conservatives–even those without racist histories–are tarred with the “racist card” when they take positions contrary to the public policy preferences of the liberal civil rights Establishment. (The same is true, by the way, of conservatives, even conservative women, and the feminist Establishment.) Certainly, no conservative with Byrd’s background would be labeled “the Conscience of the Senate.”

Did Byrd vote against Condi Rice and Clarence Thomas because they were black? I don’t know for sure, but there are enough other plausible reasons for his votes to give him the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, I doubt the Democrats who opposed Rice and who intend to oppose Alberto Gonzalez are doing so based on racial animus. The “racist card” has been an effective tool for years and Republicans are, usually quite clumsily, starting to use it as well. I wish both sides would quit it, as it’s the worst kind of ad hominem. But, so long as it works, that’s not going to happen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    Let’s try a parallel.
    Let’s say we have someone who was years ago involvedin the American Nazi party.
    He recants and becomes a Republican pol.

    Do you suppose the Democrats would give him the ‘benefit of the doubt’ when appointments come up?

    I don’t think so.

  2. Harry says:

    Byrd is no different from many Southern politicians of the era, except that he has admitted his association. Some joined the Klan, some joined Citizen’s Councils, others joined other formal or informal groups. As a child in 1950s/60s Mississippi, I often saw the Klan working street corners in full regalia, collecting money and passing out literature, and always with 2 or 3 Klansmen in trucks nearby, rifles and shotguns prominently displayed. It was pervasive. I’m not defending Byrd per se, but there was a time when Southern politics, especially at the local level, was almost totally controlled by segregationist leaders. Few politicians got elected without paying them their expected tribute.

  3. Byrd doesn’t bother me – he’s an old man who probably forgets himself at points – thus the “white n-” comment. My Grandmother occasionally reverts to saying that so and so is “colored”, but that doesn’t make her racist – it was terminology she used when she was younger. Byrd was racist, but he may not be now, no matter what words he uses.

    His opposing of Rice, though, may not have been the brightest idea for him.

  4. Jim Henley says:

    James, thanks for digging out the links. Between last night and this morning, I figured it out: Republican baiting of Byrd for his KKK sin is like Homer Simpson’s words to Marge at the end of the casino episode of the Simpsons. From now on, no matter what bad thing Homer does, Marge can’t complain, Homer tells her, because “YOU have a gambling problem!”

    This isn’t Chappaquiddick. People can throw Chappaquiddick in Teddy’s face all the live-long day if they want – he deserves it. He killed a woman and never owned up to it. Byrd HAS owned up