As someone who has written about secret societies, I feel like I should say something about the late Senator Byrd’s membership in the KKK in the 1940s–a shameful blot on his past that he didn’t deny. Byrd not only joined the Klan, he held the title of Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops; he recruited 150 members (and received a $10 bounty for each of them). “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,” he wrote in his 2005 memoir Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields. “I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.” In a 2005 interview he said, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times . . . and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”
Still, Byrd was less-than-forthcoming. What had attracted him to the Klan, he insisted to the end, was its anti-Communism; neither he nor the “upstanding” doctors, clergymen, and lawyers who belonged to his chapter advocated violence against Jews, blacks, or Catholics. He didn’t address the letter he sent to Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi in 1944 protesting moves to integrate the armed forces, which read, in part:
I am a typical American, a southerner, and 27 years of age, and never in this world will I be convinced that race mixing in any field is good. All the social ‘do-gooders,’ the philanthropic ‘greats’ of this day, the reds and the pinks…the disciples of Eleanor…the pleas by Sinatra…can never alter my convictions on this question. I am loyal to my country and I know but reverence to her flag. BUT I shall never submit to fight beneath that banner 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.
Byrd went on to vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to oppose the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. In a hideously embarrassing lapse of decorum, he used the epithet “white niggers” during a Fox News interview in 2001 (ironically, he used it to describe racists). This put him beyond the pale for the ever-disingenuous Michele Malkin, who pounced on the incident to make the point that if Byrd were a Republican, “Maxine Waters and Ralph Neas and Julianne Malveaux and Al Sharpton and all the other left-wing bloodhounds who sniff racism in every crevice of American life would be barking up a storm. Instead, the attack dogs are busy decrying latent racial bigotry where it doesn’t exist, while the real thing roams wild and free in their own political backyard.”
But Byrd was 92 when he died, and, whether or not his racial attitudes were ever pure enough to pass muster with the likes of Michele Malkin, he clearly had changed. In 2004, he received a 100% on the NAACP report card (his grade dropped to 48% in 2009, a year in which he missed many votes; he received 80% in 2008, 82% in 2007, 100% in 2006, and 78% in 2005). In 2008 he endorsed Obama. And contra Malkin and her colleagues, the real thing does exist, and while Democrats are not immune to it (certainly Byrd wasn’t for much of his life), the days of the Dixiecrats are long over. The Southern Strategy worked–if the younger Byrd were just starting out today, he’d almost certainly be a Republican.
The day that Byrd died, Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee held Elena Kagan to account for her clerkship with Thurgood Marshall, a dangerously “activist judge,” in their telling. Two of them quoted his quip “do what you think is right and let the law catch up” with horror. Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona worried that Marshall was not in the “mainstream.” “Too often,” he said, “It sounds to me like Ms Kagan shares the view of President Obama and Justice Marshall that the Supreme Court exists to advance the agenda of certain classes of litigants.” “Let’s admire the man for the great things he did,” Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah cautioned, “but let’s not walk over and wipe out the things that really didn’t make sense as an obedient student of the law.”
Senator Byrd might have voted against Thurgood Marshall’s nomination back in 1967, but he also voted against Clarence Thomas’s in 1991. Michele Malkin and her ilk might see that as further evidence of his racism, but of course it was anything but. Here’s what he said about Thomas’s accuser, Anita Hill, in that same courtly, flowery, unmistakably southern diction that he’d used half a century earlier when he’d shared his bilious sentiments about race mixing with Senator Bilbo:
I believe Anita Hill. I believe what she said. I watched her on that screen intensely and I replayed, as I have already said, her appearance and her statement. I did not see on that face the knotted brow of satanic revenge. I did not see a face that was contorted with hate. I did not hear a voice that was tremulous with passion.
I saw the face of a woman, one of 13 in a family of Southern blacks who grew up on the farm and who belonged to the church, who belongs to the church today and who was evidently reared by religious parents. . . . I saw an individual who did not flinch, who showed no nervousness, who spoke calmly throughout, dispassionately and who answered difficult questions.
And here’s what he said about Thomas:
Another reason why I shall vote against Judge Thomas, he not only effectively stonewalled the committee, he just in the main made his speeches before the committee. He mounted his own defense by charging that the committee proceedings were high-tech lynching of uppity blacks. Now, Mr. President, in my judgment, that was an attempt to shift the ground. That was an attempt to fire the prejudices of race hatred, shift it to a matter involving race.
And I, frankly, was offended by his injection of racism into these hearings. It was a diversionary tactic intended to divert both the committee’s and the American public’s attention away from the issue at hand, the issue being which one is telling the truth. I was offended by that. I thought we were past that stage….
He tried to shift the ground, and I think it was blatant intimidation, and I’m sorry to say I think it worked. I sat there and I wondered, Who is going to ask him some tough questions? Are they afraid of it? He said to Senator Metzenbaum, I believe it was, “God is my judge. You’re not my judge, Senator.”
Well, of course, God is my judge.I’m not God. But I do have a vote, and I have a responsibility to make a determination as to how I shall vote. And that kind of talk, that kind of arrogance will never get my vote. . . .