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A Senator's Shame
Byrd, in His New Book, Again Confronts Early Ties to KKK

By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 19, 2005

In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the "Grand Dragon" for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter.

As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd's organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. "The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation," Baskin said.

The young Klan leader went on to become one of the most powerful and enduring figures in modern Senate history. Throughout a half-century on Capitol Hill, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has twice held the premier leadership post in the Senate, helped win ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, squeezed billions from federal coffers to aid his home state, and won praise from liberals for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his defense of minority party rights in the Senate.

Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of his association with one of the most reviled hate groups in the nation's history.

"It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation," Byrd wrote in a new memoir -- "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields" -- that will be published tomorrow by West Virginia University Press.

The 770-page book is the latest in a long series of attempts by the 87-year-old Democratic patriarch to try to explain an event early in his life that threatens to define him nearly as much as his achievements in the Senate. In it, Byrd says he viewed the Klan as a useful platform from which to launch his political career. He described it essentially as a fraternal group of elites -- doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges and other "upstanding people" who at no time engaged in or preached violence against blacks, Jews or Catholics, who historically were targets of the Klan.

His latest account is consistent with others he has offered over the years that tend to minimize his direct involvement with the Klan and explain it as a youthful indiscretion. "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 because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions," Byrd wrote.

While Byrd provides the most detailed description of his early involvement with the Klan, conceding that he reflected "the fears and prejudices I had heard throughout my boyhood," the account is not complete. He does not acknowledge the full length of time he spent as a Klan organizer and advocate. Nor does he make any mention of a particularly incendiary letter he wrote in 1945 complaining about efforts to integrate the military.

Byrd said in an interview last week that he never intended for his book to provide "finite details" of his Klan activities, but to show young people that there are serious consequences to one's choices and that "you can rise above your past."

He suggested that his career should be judged in light of all that he did subsequently to help lift his state out of poverty, and to bring basic and critically needed services and infrastructure to West Virginia.

"I grew up in a state where we didn't have much hope," Byrd said. "I wanted to help my people and give them hope. . . . I'm just proud that the people of West Virginia accepted me as I was and helped me along the way."

Byrd's indelible links to the Klan -- the "albatross around my neck," as he once described it -- shows the remarkable staying power of racial issues more than 40 years after the height of the civil rights movement. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) learned that lesson the hard way at a birthday party in December 2002, when his nostalgic words about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948, caused a public uproar and cost Lott the majority leader's post.

Klan Issue Raised in House Contest

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."

With the help of fiddle-playing skills that became his political trademark for decades, Byrd won election to the state legislature, where he served in both chambers until he ran for the U.S. House in 1952. His political career almost ended there, however, when his opponents revealed his former ties to the KKK.

Confronting the issue, Byrd went on the radio to acknowledge that he belonged to the Klan from "mid-1942 to early 1943," according to newspaper accounts. He explained that he had joined "because it offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed to communism." He said that after about a year, he quit and dropped his membership, and never was interested in the Klan again.

Byrd won the primary, but during the general election campaign, Byrd's GOP opponent uncovered a letter Byrd had handwritten to Green, the KKK Imperial Wizard, recommending a friend as a Kleagle and urging promotion of the Klan throughout the country. The letter was dated 1946 -- long after the time Byrd claimed he had lost interest in the Klan. "The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia," Byrd wrote, according to newspaper accounts of that period. Byrd makes no mention of the letter in his new book.

Stunned Democratic state party officials, including then-Gov. Okey L. Patteson, urged him to drop out of the race. Byrd survived the ensuing political firestorm, won the general election and went on to serve six years in the House before winning his Senate seat in 1958. During his Senate campaign, he told a newspaper reporter that he personally felt the Klan had been incorrectly blamed for many acts committed by others.

Byrd's life story is one of political transformation and redemption as he evolved from a redneck politician to a mainstream Democrat in a party dominated by liberals. But there was no way for him to completely bury his Klan ties, and his past would resurface time and again throughout his career.

During the 1960 presidential campaign, Byrd, who was closely allied with then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson (Tex.), tried to derail the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John F. Kennedy (Mass.), in the crucial West Virginia primary. At Johnson's urging, Byrd supported Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (Minn.) in the primary. Kennedy allies retaliated with leaks to the press about Byrd's work as a Klan organizer. Byrd said in his book that as a result he received hate mail and threats on his life.

Four years later, Byrd's Klan past became an issue again when he joined with other southern Democrats to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd filibustered the bill for more than 14 hours as he argued that it abrogated principles of federalism. He criticized most anti-poverty programs except for food stamps. And in 1967, he voted against the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first black appointed to the Supreme Court.

Transformation Into Leader of Senate

Historians, political analysts and admirers have long sought to reconcile Byrd's early Klan affiliation with his image as a pillar of the Senate. More extraordinary is how he managed to overcome such a blot on his record to twice become Senate majority leader.

"To imagine someone who was a member of the Klan in his youth who managed to become the majority leader of the Senate, it's really quite striking," said congressional scholar Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Byrd said last week that his membership in the Baptist church tempered his views and marked "the beginning of big changes in me." And like other southern and border-state Democrats of his time, Byrd came to realize that he would have to temper his blatantly segregationist views and edge toward his party's mainstream if he wanted to advance on the national stage.

As a rising member of the leadership, Byrd paid close attention to minor legislative and scheduling details that made life easier for other senators, always showed colleagues elaborate courtesy, and wrote thank you notes on the slightest pretext. In 1971, he challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) for the majority whip post and unseated him, after securing the death-bed proxy of the legendary Sen. Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.), another of Byrd's mentors and the architect of the southern filibuster against civil rights legislation.

When Sen. Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) retired as majority leader in 1976, Byrd easily captured the post.

"Byrd's whole life became the Senate, seven days a week, 24/7, always on call," said Merle Black, an Emory University expert on southern politics. "The goal was institutional power, to be influential in the Senate."

But his transformation to mainstream Senate leader was far from smooth, and his cultural conservatism, emphasis on "law and order," and strong support for the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s put him at odds with blacks and many lawmakers in his own party.

James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia chapter of the NAACP and an occasional critic of the senator, said Byrd transcended his past by gradually embracing more enlightened social views and by simply owning up to his past mistakes. "He doesn't try to lie his way out of things," Tolbert said. "If he's wrong, he'll say he's wrong."

By relentlessly serving his state's economic interests, Byrd has secured his place as West Virginia's preeminent politician. As a long-reigning chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, Byrd pumped billions of dollars worth of jobs, programs and projects into the state that did not have a single mile of divided four-lane highway when he began his political career. More than three dozen bridges, highways, schools and public buildings are named for him.

Still, says Ken Hechler, 90, a liberal Democratic former U.S. House member from West Virginia who served with Byrd in Congress, "It's impossible for anyone to try to whitewash the KKK and its overall symbolism."

"But at the same time," he added, "we honor those people who publicly admit the error of their ways."

Last week, Byrd 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."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company