Race and Politics Part II: Robert Byrd and Democrats

In the first installment of these two pieces, we provided details of the “Republican Party and race”, in the form of a study of one of the most egregious violators of racial politics to ever sit in office, as a Republican, David Duke. David Duke, as discussed in that article, was elected in a “special election” to select a successor for the Representative that was retiring from the State Legislature. One could say, based on this information, that the people of New Orleans made a “mistake” by allowing this man to represent them, but even if you won’t concede that it was a “mistake”, one look through David Duke’s 1-9 record in elections suggests that the people of New Orleans, Louisiana, and the United States, never made it again.

Janet Napolitano Tesifies On Homeland Security BudgetDavid Duke’s influence on the Republican Party has been well documented, but when one looks up the actual influence he had, as opposed to that which has been assigned, they find a lowly State Legislator that spent one two-year term in the Louisiana State Legislature in which he got one bill passed that: “Prohibited movie producers or book publishers from compensating jurors for accounts of their court experiences.”{1} When one brushes away all the hyperbole and conjecture made in the well-documented history of Duke’s influence on the Republican party, they find a relatively inconsequential man, that held an inconsequential position, and ended his political career without any consequential influence on the Republican Party.

Another question we might ask of the general population, in regards to David Duke’s purported (by reporters) influential election in the Republican Party? how much attention does the American public pay to elections? Do they pay enough attention to presidential elections? How much does that attention drop off in off year elections? (Off year elections are years in which there is no presidential election and Congressman and Senators line the top of the ballot.) How many of those same voters pay attention to elections involving state legislators? Anyone that pays attention knows that this is a sliding scale. Final question, how many of those voters pay attention to special elections involving state legislators? I don’t know if there were other measures on the ballot at the time, but David Duke was elected to a seat in Louisiana’s state legislature in a 1992 special election. He received 8,549 votes from a suburban New Orleans population that was approximately 496,938 in 1989, which calculates to approximately 1.720% of the city’s population at the time. 

When Duke ran for president, as a Democrat, then an Independent Populist, he received scant, if any attention, and he didn’t participate in any significant interviews. When he ran for president as a Republican, however, he received so many interviews that even a fair-minded observer would have to admit amounted to a media obsession on the topic. Some have even suggested that George H.W. Bush lost crucial votes by simply having Duke on the bottom of the GOP ticket. (Republican Party officials, it should be noted, tried to block Duke’s participation in the 1992 election, but they were unsuccessful in doing so.)  Duke ended up getting 119,115 votes, or .94% percent of the vote. That’s point nine four, do not miss the decimal point. He couldn’t even get one percent of the nation in the campaign that occurred twenty-five years ago, yet he is still held up as a symbol of the racism in the Republican Party that every Republican is asked by a reporter to disavow. They do this, of course, for the purpose of associating that Republican with David Duke.  


The most egregious violator of racial politics to ever sit in office from the Democrat side of the aisle, Robert Byrd, proved, before his demise, to serve a very consequential role in the Democrat Party. Where David Duke was 1-9 in elections, Robert Byrd was 13-0, yet no reporters ask Democrats running for office to disavow Robert Byrd.

Robert Byrd was also elected by his fellow Senators to be the leader of the Senate, their President pro tempore, on seven different occasions. A Democrat defender could excuse one vote by esteemed Senators, for a former Klan recruiter that rose to the position of Kleagle, and Exalted Cyclops in the Klu Klux Klan as their President pro tempore, because they may not have known crucial details of the man’s history. They might even be able to excuse two votes for a man that voted against every civil rights piece of legislation, and every black Supreme Court nominee put before him, but to make the same “mistake” seven times? The people of New Orleans made a “mistake” once, and they might never live it down. The esteemed intellectuals of the Senate made the same “mistake” seven times, and then they furthered their “mistake” by calling him “Soul of the Senate”.

In 2010, former president Bill Clinton spoke at Robert Byrd’s funeral, to excuse Robert Byrd’s membership in the Klan:

“They mention that he once had a fleeting association with the Ku Klux Klan, and what does that mean?  I’ll tell you what it means,” Clinton said. “He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected. And maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done, and he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people.  There certainly are no perfect politicians.”{2}

The gist of those that defend Byrd’s involvement with the Klan centers on two different fronts. The first, as Clinton alludes, is that Byrd had to join the Klan if he wanted to be elected to anything in West Virginia. The import being that if anyone wanted to be elected to a position in West Virginia, that person had to join the Klan. Yet, a brief look through West Virginia’s Encyclopedic page on the KKK, displays the fact that the years following WWII “were bleak for KKK recruiters in West Virginia”.{3} World War II ended in 1945, and Robert Byrd entered Congress in 1952, so it could reasonably be said that the Klan still held some influence in West Virginia in the interim, until one unearths a 1946-1947 letter from Byrd to the Klan’s imperial wizard that stated:

“The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”

The next defense is that he only spent one year in the Klan, but as Eugene Robinson writes in a sympathetic column on the subject, Byrd spent “at least several more years (some estimate over thirty years) as a Klan sympathizer.” As usual, when speaking of any embarrassing point in a politician’s history, revisionists attempt a sleight of hand to divert the reader from the core issue by addressing another topic. Did Byrd’s racism affect his votes, and his actions, for a majority of his political career, and did he have sympathies with the Klu Klux Klan for an inordinate amount of time? Their answer: He was only a standing member of the Klan for one year.

If he only spent one year as a standing member in the Klan, it appears as though the young Robert Byrd was quite busy, in that year, creating a paper trail for the rest of us to study throughout history. The paper trail includes a 1946 letter the young Robert Byrd wrote to a fellow Klan member, Senator named Theodore G. Bilbo:

I shall never fight in the armed forces with a (pejorative deleted) by my side … 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”

Robert Byrd also left a legacy, as a Senator, that caused many of us to think that one can take a man out of the Klan, but one can never take the Klan out of the man.

* As a Senator, Byrd was not only the only Northern, Democrat Senator to vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but he joined the Southern Democrats, the Dixiecrats, in their attempts to filibuster it, to hopefully prevent it from ever reaching the Senate floor for a vote. He personally engaged in fourteen hours of the eighty-three day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Defenders of the Robert Byrd legacy say that the default position of all Southern Democrats at the time, was to advocate a separation of the races. The only problem with that defense is that most West Virginians, other than Byrd apparently, didn’t consider themselves a part of “The South” after The Civil War. Robert Byrd, apparently, never got that memo.  He voted with the Dixiecrats.

This vote was later linked to those Democrats that opposed desegregation, and the Civil Rights imposed by the federal government, on the basis of states’ rights. That sleight of hand was presumably created in an attempt to revise, or lessen, Byrd’s allegiance to those Dixiecrats that voted against the Act on the basis of committed racist reasons. The only problem with that is Robert Byrd cited a racist study, for his vote, that claimed that black people’s brains are statistically smaller than white people’s.

Men are not created equal today, and they were not created equal in 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was written,” Byrd said during a concluding portion of one of his filibuster speeches. “Men and races of men differ in appearance, ways, physical power, mental capacity, creativity and vision.”

* Robert Byrd also went to the FBI, in 1964, to inform them that it was time for Martin Luther King, Jr., to meet his Waterloo.

* Those that seek to believe these sleight of hand attempts to revise history, also have to open another chapter of defense on Byrd’s opposition to the Voting Rights Act in the next year: 1965. Byrd not only opposed that Voting Rights Act, as Eugene Robinson reports, but most of Johnson’s anti-poverty programs, stating: “We can take the people out of the slums, but we cannot take the slums out of the people.”{4}

* In 1991, Robert Byrd became the only member of the Senate to vote against the two black Supreme Court Justices appointed. He voted against Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1967 nominee Thurgood Marshall, and Byrd voted against Marshall’s replacement Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by Republican George H.W. Bush in 1991. Proving that his racial animus apparently trumped his loyalty to party. Byrd also went to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to see if Thurgood Marshall had any Communist ties that could ruin his nomination.

* Clinton’s speech at Byrd’s funeral uses the central themes of naïve youth and the need to get elected, as reasons Byrd joined the Klan, but he neglects to mention how long Byrd held such sympathies. Byrd claims he had a change of heart in 1982, but he won his first political seat in the U.S. Congress in 1952. That is at least thirty years of naivete and doing whatever was necessary to get elected.

* Byrd left a message for all young, aspiring politicians to let them know that it now hurts a politician’s career to be associated with the Klan: “Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don’t get that albatross around your neck. Once you’ve made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena.”{5} In essence, Byrd was saying that joining the hate-based Klan is presumably not the resume enhancer that it used to be.

* In a 2001 interview on Fox News Sunday, Robert Byrd referred to what he called “white (perjoratives)”. The theme of his response was that there are bad whites and bad blacks, but his choice of words led many to question whether there had ever been a complete transformation in 1982.

* Historians attempt to defend Byrd’s legacy by saying that former president Harry S Truman also joined the Klan to gain the favor of Missourians. They say that Truman may have had limited involvement with the Klan, but so did Byrd. Those that say such things, again, to focus their readers on one minimal issue without sufficiently addressing the greater concern. Truman did join the Klan, but beyond paying an initiation fee there is little in the historical record to suggest any further involvement. The racial animus, that even limited involvement in the Klan might procure, is not evident in Truman’s political history. Truman historians have even suggested that Truman’s actions as president suggest the exact opposite, as he became the first president since Abraham Lincoln to address civil rights.

* Robert Byrd’s brief stint in the Klan either affected most of his political career, or he had such a strong racial animus to begin with that he couldn’t totally overcome, until his “change of heart” moment occurred in 1982, when his grandson died as a result of an automobile accident, and he realized that: “Black people love their grandsons as much as I love mine”.

Most legacies that have been written about Robert Byrd focus on his “change of heart” moment. Most written legacies of Byrd, focus on the forgiveness we should all show the man that made one mistake in his youth. They say that towards the end of his career, he received an endorsement from the NAACP for his votes on legislation, they say that he became a champion of civil rights, and they say that at the end he was a changed man from the “Country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia” that Bill Clinton described.

Another country boy, that was never a Klansman, but held many of the same racist, segregationist views as Byrd, and recanted those views a decade before Byrd did, Strom Thurman, is not afforded any of the same calls for forgiveness as Byrd. Their careers, and their influence on their respective party, are similar, but one of them is forgiven, and the other is still considered a lifelong racist.

The deaths of Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond both received headline eulogies from the Associated Press. The Democrat Robert Byrd was labeled a “Respected voice of the Senate” and the Republican, Strom Thurmond, was listed as a “Foe of integration”. Both of these eulogies were written by the same writer, Adam Clymer, yet no one knows what prompted him, and the rest of the media, to describe these similar careers so differently. One could venture a guess that it had something to do with the fact that, twenty years into his career, Strom Thurmond decided to switch parties and become a Republican.{6}

Both men also received friendly homages from colleagues in the Senate at the end of their respective careers.

On December 5, 2002, Republican Senator Trent Lott spoke about the career of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond:

“I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.”

Two years later, Democrat Senator Christopher Dodd spoke about the career of Robert Byrd:

“I do not think it is an exaggeration at all to say to my friend from West Virginia that he would have been a great senator at any moment,” Mr. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, said while praising Mr. Byrd last week on the occasion of the eight-term Democrat’s 17,000th Senate vote.

“He would have been right at the founding of this country,” Dodd continued. “He would have been in the leadership crafting this Constitution. He would have been right during the great conflict of Civil War in this nation.”

The first question a reader should ask is, if a former Klu Klux Klan member were involved in the Civil War, a war that involved a disagreement over slavery, which side would Robert Byrd have been on, and how does a modern Senator characterize that position as “right”?

Members of the right-wing media believed that there were parallels between the comments of Dodd and Trent Lott, but a top Democrat at the time, Tom Daschle, stated that there were no parallels. He even went onto say that: “I would think even (Dodd) would tell you there’s no parallel.”

So, if a Senator commits an egregious offense similar to Trent Lott’s, comments that brought about an end to his career as a Senator, we’re supposed to turn to the Senator that commits a similar offense and ask him if he thinks his offense was similar? 

What might be hilarious if it were not such a sad commentary, is that shortly after Trent Lott made the insensitive tribute to Strom Thurmond, Christopher Dodd took to the airwaves to call for Trent Lott to step aside.

“If Tom Daschle or another Democratic leader were to have made similar statements, the reaction would have been very swift,” he said on CNN’s “Late Edition” on Dec. 15, 2002. “I don’t think several hours would have gone by without there being an almost unanimous call for the leader to step aside.”

Two years later, Christopher Dodd used different words to commit an offense so similar that it it might be the best evidence of media bias the nation has ever witnessed. Read the two quotes again, and keep in mind that Byrd’s career and Thurmond’s career, and their prior statements of racial insensitivity were so similar that it builds the perfect case for media bias when one acknowledges that the apology of Trent Lott basically went ignored while the dogged determination of New York Times contributor and others led to Lott stepping down as a Senate Majority Leader and stating that he would not run for re-election.

When Christopher Dodd attempted to apologize to several Civil Rights groups, those apologies were accepted and even considered unnecessary by some. Not only was Dodd not forced to resign, he didn’t lose any stature in the Senate, because apparently one could ask him if the comments were similar, and he would say no.

As further evidence of media bias, the story of Trent Lott’s offense was so widely reported that it was difficult to find people, that pay attention to politics, and some outside that scope, that haven’t heard about it. The hilariously similar, egregious offense committed by Christopher Dodd, is virtually unknown by those that get their news from specific sources that confirm their bias.

As Alex Knepper, of the Frum Forum, wrote:

“The metanarrative must be preserved at all costs: Republicans, racist; Democrats, good. That’s all you need to know about the media’s thoughts on race relations in America.” {7}








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