By Michael Willard
I once worked for a man who had been an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan — and I’m proud of it.
No, not because he was a Klan member three-quarters of a century ago, but because of what he became afterward, and the contribution he made toward civil rights for our nation.
It is difficult for anyone to remove the stain of having for a period in the 1940s joined and recruited others for the racist organization. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia was no exception, though he certainly tried.
This, even though this coal miner’s son had risen from poverty to become by 1977, the leader of the United States Senate. Even though a poll of influential Americans rated him the fourth most powerful man in the country at the time. (US News & World Report)
On a prickly hot day 37 years ago in what we affectionately referred to as the “Byrdmobile” van, we traveled a narrow dirt road up a winding hollow until the pathway abruptly halted at a wood-frame house.
“My house was a little further up the road,” said Byrd of the path that disappeared into the undergrowth. “It burned down.” It was a campaign year, and the senator was again meandering through West Virginia on the way to an overwhelming victory.
He would go on to serve longer in the US Senate than anyone in history.
On such trips, we would stop by rural post offices, and sometimes he would get his fiddle out and play a few songs for a gathering crowd. It was his unique way of campaigning.
“Everyone comes to the Post Office. They’ll hear that Robert Byrd stopped by and tell others,” he would say.
An elderly woman emerged from the house, puzzled at having visitors so far off the beaten path. Her bewhiskered grown son, with a shotgun in hand, stood over to the side, eyeing us warily.
On the porch, Byrd told the woman that he had often passed her house as a child on his way to the paved road several miles distant while going to school.
“So you’re that little boy, Robert? I always wondered what happened to him,” she said, surprised. She truly did not know “the little boy” had become a powerful senator.
Byrd had come a long way from being a country store butcher from Raleigh County to running for his first political office, a path that would eventually lead to advising presidents and traveling the world over.
But, there was always that albatross around his neck, his long-ago association with the KKK, even though he had long reputed what it stood for and had allies in the Martin Luther King family and a sky-high favorable rating from the NAACP.
Byrd once remarked that klan membership would be in his obituary. It was something he could not escape. He was right. President Trump, in denouncing Joe Biden, made an oblique reference to it during a campaign rally in Tulsa.
Biden had spoken at a memorial service when Byrd died 10 years ago. This led Trump to make the association between Byrd, Biden, and racist tendencies of both, which was as ridiculous a comparison as calling Trump a self-made man.
I was at Byrd’s side for eight years, first as press secretary and later as director of his Democratic Leadership Office. I traveled with him over the highways and backroads of West Virginia as well as to Moscow, Beijing, Cairo, Tehran, Panama,London and points in between.
On each assignment, he met, warned, praised, and negotiated with leaders the world over. He most often was an emissary of the President of the United States, and on a special mission.
Interestingly, Byrd often knew more about the issues prior to a foreign trip than the State Department officials briefing him. He prepared as if he were taking a bar examination. He had earned a law degree from American University after having been elected to the senate.
Byrd wasn’t just in the room when decisions were made. He influenced the decisions, such as the time in Tehran, when he called a disappointed President Carter on a secure line and told him there was no way the Shah could survive the current upheaval in Iran.
The question always loomed. Why would I, someone active in civil rights from an early age whose son is bi-racial, work for a man who had once been a low-level organizer of the Klan?
It was then and now an easy answer. The transformation of Robert Byrd from who he was to who he became had occurred long before I joined him.
I’ll let him tell it in his words:
“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.”
In truth, Byrd’s involvement in the KKK was not just a youthful indiscretion or even based on a strictly racial motive. He was urged to join for political reasons in a state that had less than a four percent African American population.
In league with old-line southern senators, he also filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, four years later, he voted in favor of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and called his earlier vote against the act his worst ever.
When Byrd died, the then-NAACP President, Benjamin Jealous said, “Sen. Byrd went from being in the KKK to being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the rights and liberties of our country.”
The iconic civil rights leader Congressman John Lewis said on Byrd’s passing: “Senator Byrd sought change and with that change, he became one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I had ever seen…
“There is none like him. He made a significant change in his life, and that is what counts the most. That is what this country is about, the capacity for each one of us to grow and change. I will miss Senator Byrd; he was a true statesman.”
I miss him as well, Congressman, and I can not brook a con man in the White House besmirching his name and record.