It is always quite challenging to figure out the trajectory of a person’s life. The choices of what to include/exclude and what to criticize/laud are commonly burdensome and muddled. Arguably, one of the most challenging issues to grapple with is when the recently deceased held a position in one’s past that is morally wrong and still has debilitating effects upon the body politic. Such is the case with the esteemed, legendary, and oftentimes revered legislator, Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Byrd was a Democrat from the South who endorsed the subjugation of African Americans through Jim Crow Laws: a Dixiecrat. In congruity with this political posture, Byrd shored up his racial bigotry by being a member of the most notorious hate group in the United States, namely, the Ku Klux Klan. How can any individual who believes in the intangible ideal of the so-called American Dream and who holds onto the conviction that a person’s skin color does not determine that person’s character indulge in the activities of racial hatemongers? Either one would have to be unusually forgiving or one would have to be dismissive of the extent of that person’s commitment to the dehumanization of fellow human beings.
In 2001, Byrd used the N-word to discuss his upbringing and he confessed to being a member of the KKK. He indicated both the use of the racially insensitive descriptor and participation in the hate group were mistakes. At the time, Byrd was already an old man at 83. In his mid-to-late twenties, Byrd stumped for membership in the KKK because he believed it promoted traditional American values. In addition, during the same decade of the 1940s, he adamantly opposed desegregation of the armed forces. During the now-celebrated Civil Rights Movement, already well into his forties, he filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This is a man who seemed to be fairly clearheaded about his view of black people as unworthy of first-class citizenship. Before that turbulent decade ended, Byrd stood tall in opposition to the nomination of the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, i.e., Thurgood Marshall.
Certainly, individuals can evolve, and the kleagle for the KKK surely did. He supported President Lyndon Johnson’s administration’s escalation of the Vietnam War, but vigorously challenged President George W. Bush’s executive decision to go to war in a country not responsible for the terrorism of September 11, 2001. As a thoroughgoing pacifist, I found myself rooting for such swinging of the U.S. Constitution, albeit unsuccessfully, against the unmitigated gall of Bush’s to arrogate to himself powers of the executive branch of government that do not exist.
When looking back over a person’s life, it is probably best and fairest to take into account major commitments, reforms, regrets, failures, and achievements—for all render the most realistic picture. Those who resort to hagiographic, rosy, and doctored depictions do a disservice to the public—squeamishness aside. Byrd, a boy from a poor Appalachian coal-mining family, orphaned at one, the pork-barrel “dean of the Senate” who served 51 years, as well as three terms in the House of Representatives, was a man with many flaws, great oratorical skills, who brought dignity into the chambers, and, for what it is worth, all irony aside, was dubbed the “conscience of the Senate.”