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A Senator's Shame

Klan Issue Raised in House Contest

West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, in his Senate office last week, has written a new book about his half-century in elective office. A fiddler and a student of history, Byrd has served twice as Senate majority leader.
West Virginia Democrat Robert C. Byrd, in his Senate office last week, has written a new book about his half-century in elective office. A fiddler and a student of history, Byrd has served twice as Senate majority leader. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

West Virginia has been embroiled in issues of race and civil rights from its inception at the start of the Civil War, when 55 western mountain counties with few slaves seceded from Virginia. From the beginning, the rich veins of bituminous coal beneath rugged mountain ranges drove the state's economy, and attracted workers from throughout Appalachia and immigrants from as far away as Eastern and Southern Europe. Few blacks settled in the state, and even today African Americans constitute little more than 3 percent of the population.

A world away from many of the millionaires who inhabit the Senate, Byrd grew up poor but proud during the Depression, with a stunning work ethic and a hunger to learn. Born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Wilkesboro, N.C., on Nov. 20, 1917, the future senator was a year old when his mother died of influenza. In accordance with her wishes, his father dispersed the children among family members. Young Cornelius was sent to live with an uncle and aunt, Titus and Vlurma Byrd, who settled in southern West Virginia. The Byrds adopted their young nephew and renamed him Robert C. Byrd.

Byrd recalls in his book that when he was a small boy, his adoptive father, a coal miner, left him with a friend in Matoaka, W.Va., one Saturday while he went to participate in a parade. Watching from the window, young Byrd saw people dressed in white hoods and robes and wearing white masks over their faces. Some years later, he wrote, he learned that his father had been a member of the Klan and took part in the parade.

His parents and the boarders who lived with them inculcated Byrd in "the typical southern viewpoint of the time," he wrote. "Blacks were generally distrusted by many whites, and I suspect they were subliminally feared."

West Virginia was never considered a hotbed of Klan activity, as were states in the Deep South, but it had its share of violence against blacks and immigrants. Forty-eight people, including 28 blacks, were lynched in West Virginia, mostly during the late 1880s and early 1900s, according to the Tuskegee University archives. The last two reported lynchings occurred on Dec. 10, 1931, in Lewisburg, W.Va. By the time Byrd began organizing for the Klan during World War II, the organization had largely morphed into a money-making fraternal organization that was virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

Married, with two daughters, Byrd developed a network of friends and associates while working as a meat cutter. He wrote that he became "caught up with the idea of being part of an organization to which 'leading' persons belonged."

Byrd's book offers a truncated description of his days with the Klan that does not completely square with contemporaneous newspaper accounts and letters that show he was involved with the Klan throughout much of the 1940s, and not merely for two or three years.

According to his book, Byrd wrote to Samuel Green, an Atlanta doctor and "Imperial Wizard" of the Ku Klux Klan, in late 1941 or early 1942, expressing interest in joining. Some time later, he received the letter from Baskin, the "Grand Dragon" of mid-Atlantic states, saying he would come to Byrd's home in Crab Orchard whenever Byrd had rounded up 150 recruits for the Klan.

When Baskin finally arrived, the group gathered at the home of C.M. "Clyde" Goodwin, a former local law enforcement official. When it came time to choose the "Exalted Cyclops," the top officer in the local Klan unit, Byrd won unanimously.

Byrd asserts that his Klan chapter never engaged in or preached violence, "nor did we conduct any parades or marches or other public demonstrations" -- other than one time delivering a wreath of flowers in the shape of a cross to the home of a member who had been killed in a pistol duel.

Byrd wrote that he continued as a "Kleagle" recruiting for the Klan until early 1943, when he and his family left Crab Orchard for a welding job in a Baltimore shipyard. Returning to West Virginia after World War II ended in 1945, he launched his political career, but not before writing another letter, to one of the Senate's most notorious segregationists, Theodore Bilbo (D-Miss.), complaining about the Truman administration's efforts to integrate the military.

Byrd said in the Dec. 11, 1945, letter -- which would not become public for 42 more years with the publication of a book on blacks in the military during World War II by author Graham Smith -- that he would never fight in the armed forces "with a Negro by my side." Byrd added that, "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."

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