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Sen. Robert Byrd dead at 92; West Virginia lawmaker was the longest serving member of Congress in history

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) served in the U.S. Congress longer than any member in history. The nine-term senator assumed office Jan. 3, 1959, after serving three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

After working as a shipyard welder in Baltimore during World War II, he returned to West Virginia and opened a grocery store in Sophia. A born-again Christian, he taught an adult Bible class at Crab Orchard Baptist Church that grew from six people to 636 in a year. When the radio station in nearby Beckley began to broadcast his fiery fundamentalist lessons, he became a local celebrity.

In 1946, he ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He met nearly every voter in the district while campaigning alone throughout the little coal-mining towns and backwoods hollows. When he made public appearances, he laid out his positions on the issues and then took out his fiddle.

He read music and could play classical pieces, but on the campaign trail he played the mountain tunes his neighbors knew and loved, the same songs he had played for years at coal camp square dances and Saturday night frolics.

Because he didn't know how to drive at the time, he'd have a miner ferry him around the district, and he'd invite the men to come out and sit in the car with him while he sawed away at "Ida Red," "Old Joe Clark," "Bile Them Cabbage Down" and other Appalachian tunes.

"The back seat of an automobile is a rather odd place to play a violin, considering the bowing room that is needed, but apparently Byrd could pull it off," Sherrill wrote in the 1971 New York Times article.

Voters elected the 28-year-old grocer to the state House with an overwhelming majority. In 1950, he won a state Senate seat by a similar margin.

"I worked hard," he wrote in his memoir. "I never spent time at after-hours joints around Charleston, as was the habit of some members of the legislature."

In 1952, Mr. Byrd announced his candidacy for the U.S. House of Representatives from West Virginia's 6th Congressional District. During the Democratic primary, his principal opponent revealed that Mr. Byrd had been a Klan member in 1942-43.

Mr. Byrd bought radio and television time to acknowledge his Klan affiliation, characterizing it as a "mistake of youth." He apologized repeatedly over the years, describing it as "the greatest mistake of my life."

However, at the time of his membership, he was apparently an enthusiastic participant. He once persuaded 150 of his neighbors to join -- membership fee, $10; robe and hood, $3 -- prompting the grand dragon of mid-Atlantic states, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington County, to drive to Crab Orchard to help Mr. Byrd organize a local chapter.

The fledgling congressional candidate won the 1952 primary, but shortly before the general election, his Republican opponent released a letter that Mr. Byrd had written to the imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in 1946, three years after he had allegedly left the Klan.

In the letter, Mr. Byrd 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."


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