Friday, July 2, 2010

Robert Byrd's Legacy: Evolution or Opportunism?

Motives are tricky things. Given human nature, the only thing of which you can be sure is that no one has a pure one.

If you follow the CTW regularly or recently, you know that I've been asked my opinion of the late Senator Robert Byrd, the oldest living U.S. Senator who died, June 28, at the age of 92. It is no secret that Byrd, a Democrat who represented West Virginia, came to national office an inveterate racist. He had not only been in the Ku Klux Klan, he rose through the ranks to become a leader in the domestic terrorist group. Perhaps the reader and others are curious regarding what I think; perhaps they're looking for some inconsistency in my 'ideology'; or perhaps they are genuinely interested in my point of view. Motives are tricky things. So tricky, in fact, that there are times when I stay away from trying to judge them.

The reason I'm consenting to write about Byrd is because, frankly, I conflicted about his legacy. Byrd's passing is historic, not simply because of his extraordinarily long tenure, but because he represents the last of the true 'Dixiecrats': Southern Democratic politicians, whose bigotry and racism resulted in Jim Crow segregation becoming not only custom but law throughout the south. Because of them, African-Americans and other minorities were oppressed, their safety was threatened and violated with impunity. Regularly women of color were raped, human beings were killed because the southern 'way of life' and public policy permitted it; it was permitted by law enforcement officials would not enforce the law fairly or a judicial system which would not administer the law equally; systems deemed 'separate but equal', assaulted the psyches of black people by humiliating them through legally enforced segregation in nearly every area of public life. It always galls me to have people compare this period of injustice that was actually condoned by people who knew about it to individual acts of crime today; or the actions of 'extremists' and the 'misguided' in white society. It was the law. It was public policy. It was supported by the predominant political party in the south and it became a voting bloc against which presidents from FDR to Kennedy feared to alienate. This was the Democratic Party of the south. It remained like this pretty much from the time of Lincoln until the mid '60's, early '70's. Byrd was a member of this party.

My earliest remembrance of him was after the march Martin Luther King led in Memphis, Tennessee in March 1968. It degenerated into violence, having been infiltrated by outside agitators. It was Byrd who accused King of 'running like a scared rabbit' after having provoked violence. To me, at the time, Byrd was not dissimilar to many whites (and some blacks), who misunderstood, did not like, or hated King and his work. I didn't know at the time, that Byrd was among the Dixiecrats who had filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Bill or opposed the 1965 Voting Rights Act. I didn't know that he had been the 'Exalted Cyclops' of the Klan, nor did I know he had opposed the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court.

As Byrd is laid to rest, and people describe this shameful part of his history, it is done sometimes with a number of caveats: he was 'a man of his times' (aren't we all, 'men of our times'); he himself sought to excuse his terrorist associations saying, " offered excitement and opposed communism..." (was there no Rotary Club is West Virginia?!); he was "...caught up with the idea of belonging to an organization to which 'leading' persons belonged..."(he never thought about, say, 'church'?). The facts are these are nearly the same reasons young minority urban youth give for belonging to gangs - they aren't acceptable now and the rationale for Byrd doesn't wash now. The fact is, he was a racist. He told fellow senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi he'd never "...serve with "a Negro" [in the military - after Truman desegregated the armed services] and 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.""

But here is the challenge for those like me, who are incensed when reading about Byrd's bigoted past: he apparently changed - changed for the better and changed for the rest of his life. He publicly repudiated his Klan membership. He apologized for his views, talked about how he regretted his votes against Civil Rights legislation. He voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1968, he went on to receive a 100% rating on his voting record by the NAACP and a 67% rating by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). And supported Barack Obama for president.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson writes, "His career is also a reminder that no political party has a monopoly on wisdom or virtue. It was Southern Democrats who tried desperately to deny equal rights to African-Americans, and it was the votes of Northern Republicans that helped pass the landmark legislation. Southern whites switched parties and made the South a GOP bastion. This has been the situation for decades now – but it won't last forever."

Was it, as one writer says, 'evolution or opportunism'?

Motives are tricky things. People change because of impactful events that are intensely personal. Sometimes they change because they notice that they have an illogical stance that is no longer supported by anyone around them. Their environments change, so they change. Many times exposure or education changes them. Politics change people.

Here's what I do know: the Dixiecrats of the '60's and early '70's, morphed into the southern Republicans of the mid '70's, '80's and beyond. They bolted because of the passage of Civil Rights and took the 'law and order' platform opening provided by Nixon in 1969 (a thinly veiled appeal to the southern racists) to leave the party. Those doors were flung open wide when Reagan ran for the presidency floating mythic images of 'the welfare queen' in the ghetto with the 'Cadillac' (an untruth for which he never apologized).

Robert Byrd stayed with the Democratic Party, changed his bigoted views, apologized and supported equality until his death in office at 92, the longest serving senator in U.S. history.

As a black man, I cannot read about Byrd's past without anger and indignation. But I cannot read about his 'redemption' without realizing that there is hope that people can change.
There are some who think that if you believe something when you are young, it is what you have to believe and commit to for the rest of your life. Therefore, in order to have integrity, you go through life in search of and accepting only that which confirms those beliefs. That's not integrity, that's intellectual and moral mediocrity. Unlike many white racists today, Byrd apparently never sought to justify his prejudice by pointing out instances in which he believed black people to be guilty of the same thing. He said that he was wrong and challenged others to overcome their bigotry and hatred. That takes integrity. And it takes some courage.

At his passing I choose to give Robert Byrd his due. And I choose to wonder whether or not 21st century 'softer bigots', who hide behind the excuse of 'fear' and 'love of country', will one day have the integrity and courage to admit that they are wrong - and change.

You can read more about Byrd here and here.


Anonymous said...

DI'd you notice how Bill Clinton lied about Byrd's involvement in the KKK at the funeral this morning?

Anonymous said...

President Obuma, in his eulogy to Robert Byrd today, mentioned that Byrd kept a copy of the constitution in his pocket. I wonder if it was the same Constitution that was written over 200 years ago, or did he have an updated version based on today's culture? That leads me also to ask if he kept a "Living Constitution" in his pocket, did it ever bite him?

Anonymous said...

Byrd was, as you alluded to, a political opportunist of the first magnitude. He was also a pork barrel professional first class, with a multitude of W. Virginia projects named in his honor. He voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas. Byrd also opposed some of George W. Bush's judicial and Cabinet nominees who were black, notably Janice Rogers Brown for judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and Condoleezza Rice for Secretary of State.

In a March 4, 2001, interview with Tony Snow, Byrd said of race relations:
“ They're much, much better than they've ever been in my lifetime ... I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us ... I just think we talk so much about it that we help to create somewhat of an illusion. I think we try to have good will. My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time, if you want to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much.”

Byrd's use of the term "white nigger" created immediate controversy. When asked about it, Byrd responded,
“ I apologize for the characterization I used on this program ... The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society ... In my attempt to articulate strongly held feelings, I may have offended people.

Gerald Britt said...

Anon 2:36 - that's funny. Perhaps THAT'S what motivated Byrd's redemption, being bitten by a living document!

Gerald Britt said...

Anon 2:54,

I actually found it a little more interesting that Tony Snow never stopped Byrd to ask him what he meant when he used the term!

Look, I'm not going to serve as a Robert Byrd 'apologist' but in the context of the post I think we need to separate some things out:

you can take issue with regard to the 'pork' he took home to his district. And then I defy you to find a senator who hasn't done it. It's really only been an issue since we've allowed conservatives and Tea Partiers to stoke up illogical flames, suggesting that the federal government should spend no money so that it can stop collecting taxes.

As far as his not supporting Clarence Thomas, you have got to be kidding! There are any number of African-Americans who would have voted against Clarence Thomas and were not pursuaded in the least by the 'high tech lynching' rationale for the charges against him - even though most didn't believe the charges! The same would have gone for Condoleeza Rice (although I was supportive of her nomination. I came to regret it later, though).

Two other things about Byrd's comments in the Snow interview. You didn't go far enough in his apology statement, the rest of it read:

"I apologize for the characterization I used on this program," he said. "The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society.

"As for my language, I had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone of another race," he said. "In my attempt to articulate strongly held feelings, I may have offended people."

"Unfortunately," he added, "there are people in every race who would rather attack others simply because of ill-conceived, false stereotypes based on skin color. People who do this are obstacles to positive race relations and become the stereotypes that they despise. But by working together and continually improving the understanding between the races, we can overcome these narrow-minded people and the obstacles that they represent."

Anonymous said...

The Democrats to this day, attempts to take fraudulently credit for the civil rights movement and legislation, and when called on it, the recitation is the same: “we’ve grown” and “don’t forget about the Dixiecrats”.
How many pre-1964 southern racist Democrat bigots did NOT join the Republican party after 1964?
Those who stayed with the Democrat party included;
Orval Fabus
Benjamin Travis Laney
John Stennis
James Eastland
Allen Ellender
Russell Long
John Sparkman
John McClellan
Richard Russell
Herman Talmadge
George Wallace
Lester Maddox
John Rarick
Robert Byrd
Al Gore, Sr.
Bull Connor

In fact, it seems that MOST of the Dixiecrats did NOT join the Republican party, even though many of them lived long past 1964. Only a very FEW of them switched to the GOP, such as Strom Thurmond and Mills Godwin.

And as we all know by now, the ONLY admitted former KKK member in Congress until recently was Robert Byrd, a former KKK Kleagle, a recruiter who persuaded people to join the KKK.So where do we get this myth that "most" of the southern racist Democrats switched to the Republican party after 1964? Is it a myth? Or just another Democrat LIE? The only Dixiecrats who switched are Thurmond, Helms, and Godwin. Only three - looks like the remainder stayed with the democrat party.

There weren’t many Republicans in the South prior to 1964, but that doesn’t mean the birth of the southern GOP was tied to “white racism.” That said, I am sure there were and are white racist southern GOP members. No one would deny that. But it was the southern Democrats who were the party of slavery and, later, segregation. It was George Wallace, not John Tower, who stood in the southern schoolhouse door to block desegregation! The vast majority of Congressional GOP voted FOR the Civil Rights of 1964-65. The vast majority of those opposed to those acts were southern Democrats. Southern Democrats led to infamous filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The confusion arises from GOP Barry Goldwater’s vote against the ’64 act. He had voted in favor or all earlier bills and had led the integration of the Arizona Air National Guard, but he didn’t like the “private property” aspects of the ’64 law. In other words, Goldwater believed people’s private businesses and private clubs were subject only to market forces, not government mandates (“We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.”) His vote against the Civil Rights Act was because of that one provision was, to my mind, a principled mistake.

This stance is what won Goldwater the South in 1964, and no doubt many racists voted for Goldwater in the mistaken belief that he opposed Black Civil Rights. But Goldwater was not a racist; he was a libertarian who favored both civil rights and property rights.

Richard Nixon was also a proponent of Civil Rights; it was a CA colleague who urged Ike to appoint Warren to the Supreme Court; he was a supporter of Brown v. Board, and favored sending troops to integrate Little Rock High). Nixon saw he could develop a “Southern strategy” based on Goldwater’s inroads. He did, but Independent Democrat George Wallace carried most of the deep south in 68. By 1972, however, Wallace was shot and paralyzed, and Nixon began to tilt the south to the GOP. The old guard Democrats began to fade away while a new generation of Southern politicians became Republicans. True, Strom Thurmond switched to GOP, but most of the old timers (Fulbright, Gore, Wallace, Byrd etc etc) retired as Dems.

Why did a new generation white Southerners join the GOP? Not because they thought Republicans were racists who would return the South to segregation, but because the GOP was a “local government, small government” party in the old Jeffersonian tradition. Southerners wanted less government and the GOP was their natural home.

Gerald Britt said...

I'm reading you're comment and trying to make sure I'm clear on what you're saying.

However, you did get some things right. Early Nixon was a proponent of Civil Rights. In fact black leaders considered him much more progressive than Kennedy in the 1960 race.

Personally, Goldwater's stance only became more clear shortly before he died. But that's the point with him, during that time, Goldwater's campaign came across as racist. As a boy, I remember at least some of how he was perceived. And quite frankly it was as a war mongering racist. The degree to which he will be 'redeemed' historically is going to be interesting.

It is not a 'lie' that a Democratic President championed the passage of the Civil Rights bill (two, actually, it was after all Kennedy's bill). And it is equally true that the bill cost democrats the south...Richard Russell warned LBJ of as much.

You did mention something else that I forgot: it was a confluence of George Wallace's populist appeal to segregationists and the door it opened for Nixon (who was fundamentally a 'different' Nixon than the '60 presidential candidate) which produced the 'southern strategy'. The limited government ideology, was a companion piece to the 'law and order' platform that played off of the fears of black militancy, riots, Viet Nam protests and the like, frighteningly demonstrated by the protests at the '68 Democratic convention in Chicago.

The call for limited government was illustrated by Reagan with the use of the mythic 'welfare queen'. Again, something that the Reagan campaign made up and focused attention of welfare 'fraud' among African-Americans without ever having to say African-Americans, to bolster the call for the need for 'limited government'.

Anonymous said...

And what of the majority of dixiecrats that remained Dems? Did they also experience a "Byrd-like" epiphany?

Gerald Britt said...

Anon 4:20,

I'm not sure of your point. Did racists remain in the Democratic Party - of course. But it is a fact that passage of the Civil Rights bill (and the Voting Rights Bill)cost the Democrats control of the Congress, and led to a number of democrats conveniently discovering that 'their party had left them'.

The point of the post was Byrd's 'epiphany' as you call it. Was it an evolution or was it opportunism? You believe it to be opportunism and so be it. But there were plenty of opportunities for him to show his old colors (no pun intended) throughout the years. There have been many who have professed such conversion experiences only to be shown to not be as thoroughly 'born again' as professed. That's what, again, to get back to the point of the post, is tricky about motives.

I trust, that as I get older and hopefully change and grow, that I won't be held to all of the attitudes and actions of my younger years.

There was once a man who said, "I never forgive and I never forget" to which someone who overheard his declaration said, "Then I hope you never sin."

It's fashionable now to fix people at the period of their weakness and their failings. This attitude itself makes us a weak and failing society.

Byrd's dead. We can only take him at his word, hope he was sincere and hope that others will experience a similar growth.

Anonymous said...

My point was in rebuttal to the comment in the original blog concerning the switching of the dixiecrats to the Republican party, and your implication that these dixiecrats formed the nucleus of a southern GOP racist view. You commented that "Here's what I do know: the Dixiecrats of the '60's and early '70's, morphed into the southern Republicans of the mid '70's, '80's and beyond." The Republicans of the 70's and 80's were moving to a more libertarian view not a racist perspective as you suggested.

Follow this - 3 dixiecrats defected to the GOP. the remainder stayed with the Democrat party. As the overwhelming majority of dixiecrats stay with the dems, did they not retain their segregationists perspective? Or as I asked earlier, did they have an epiphany. One definition of epiphany is "a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience"

Face it, the majority of the civil rights opponents at that time were in the Democrat party.

Gerald Britt said...


I see your point. And you get no argument from me on it. But the majority of those Democrats were SOUTHERN Democrats. Northern Democrats, like Kennedy, sought to appease them in order to have their votes on important legislation and didn't understand the depth of harm southern segregation was doing to our blacks and to the country in general.

But you are right, they were Democrats...