By Ray Smock
It was ten years ago this month that Senator Robert C. Byrd died on June 28, 2010. He was given the rare honor of lying in repose in the Chamber of the U. S. Senate. His funeral service in Charleston, West Virginia, was attended by tens of thousands of people, white and black, many of whom, the evening before, had walked along Kanawha Boulevard behind the senator’s horse-drawn casket on the way to the gold-domed Capitol. The world, today, always changing, seems so distant from 2010, when Barack Obama was the last of eleven U.S. presidents that knew and worked with Senator Byrd.
Byrd Center Director Ray Smock with Senator Robert C. Byrd at the center in 2005.
Today the streets of cities and towns all across America and in many cities of Europe are filled with people of all ages and colors demonstrating against police brutality against African Americans and calling for a broad range of changes leading to social justice and an end to America’s original sin, slavery and the racism it spawned. And these demonstrations are occurring during the worst pandemic in a century.
My thoughts about Senator Byrd turned back more than a half century to demonstrations that I participated in and how my life was changed by that experience, and how it reflects on today’s reality.
In the summer of 1964, when I was 23, three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. That event would change my life even though I was a thousand miles away in Illinois. I became a civil rights activist and in my first march I carried a sign with three names on it: “Goodman, Schwerner, Chaney,” the names of the three murdered men. That year I would enter Roosevelt University in Chicago and take up the study of black history because I realized how little I knew about it and how little I knew about the forces that were shaping the nation. I needed to educate myself.
The year before, in 1963, a young black student leader, John R. Lewis, age 23, spoke with Martin Luther King, Jr., and others at the March on Washington, one of the iconic events of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, Lewis was involved in organizing the Mississippi Freedom Summer, designed to register black voters in that state. He became head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the following year he would be savagely beaten by Alabama state troopers during a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on the way to the old capital of the Confederacy, Montgomery. The bridge was named for a Confederate general and former Klansman. It is now a national landmark.
In Washington, DC that fateful summer of 1964, Senator Robert C. Byrd was on the floor of the U.S. Senate filibustering for 14 hours against the Civil Rights Act. Senator Byrd was aligned with the southern states rights’ senators then. Those of us in the Civil Rights Movement, be they foot soldiers like me, or leaders like John Lewis, had no problem seeing him as a big obstacle in the way of what we were fighting for. It was common knowledge that Senator Byrd had once been in the Klan in the 1940s, not just a member, but a local organizer. He was working in grocery stores as a butcher in those days and for a short time owned his own store in Sophia, West Virginia.
My life and my career came in touch with both Senator Byrd and Congressman Lewis some twenty years later. I was appointed by Speaker Tip O’Neill to be the first official historian of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1984. My job was to develop plans for the 200th Anniversary of the U.S. Constitution and the 200th Anniversary of Congress, and this put me in contact with the Senate Historical Office and Senator Byrd, who was just beginning his monumental history of the U.S. Senate. Among the publications that my office produced was Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1989. John Lewis came to Congress in 1987, and I gathered biographical information from him and his staff for this book. Congressman Lewis and I met on a few occasions, and the first time I shook his hand, I said to him that it was an honor to meet a leader of civil rights who had a profound affect on my own development. The thing I loved about my job was that I was meeting the makers of history every day. I saw them in three-dimensions, as approachable human beings, not abstractions or stereotypes from the news.
While my work was mostly on the House side, it was Senator Byrd that I worked with more closely because I had to coordinate our bicentennial plans with the Senate and Byrd was the Senate leader and the chairman of the Senate Bicentenary Commission. No one took the job of Senator with more seriousness and dedication than did Senator Byrd. By the time I met him, this self-made, largely self-educated man, who did not complete his law degree until he was already in the Senate, was a polished statesman at the height of his power.
Every encounter with him was a learning experience. Once in a conversation with him about the Federalist essays I quoted James Madison in Federalist 51, and Senator Byrd raised his finger and said, “Dr. Smock, you should know better, Madison said that in Federalist 10.”
The Senator Byrd that I disliked, and even despised in the 1960s, was not the man I met in the 1980s. In the 1970s he started to publicly apologize for his past membership in the Klan and his opposition to major civil rights legislation in the 1960s. He continued to apologize right up to the end of his life at age 92. His Klan membership had been first used against him in his first run for national office, when he ran for Congress in 1952. For some of his critics, and his political opponents, there would be no forgiveness.
Senator Byrd knew that whatever he did in life his past would haunt him and be a stain on his reputation. He said it would be like an albatross around his neck. In the January 1978 issue of Time, he called joining the Klan “the worst mistake of my life.” In that same interview he said, “I developed a new perspective on the Constitution and the law,” and said discrimination against someone on the basis of color was “unjust” and “cruel.” For most West Virginians, and most of the nation, white and black, it was Senator Byrd’s atonement, his rejection of that past, his apologies, and his deeds in office that allowed forgiveness, and redemption.
Lincoln said of the Civil War that unless the American people could disenthrall themselves of slavery and the past there could be no Union; there could be no freedom. Senator Robert C. Byrd personally disenthralled himself of his own past and herein is the beginning of his greatness. If this is not a positive lesson from history, then what is? If this is not a positive lesson for the Black Lives Matter movement and for all the other organizations and individuals working for justice and an end to racism, then what is? Until a whole nation can disenthrall itself of white supremacy and racism, we will not see progress.
We have learned that bold, sweeping legislation, and powerful decisions from the Supreme Court, while vital to progress, do not change a nation overnight. We are in the streets in 2020 just as we were in the 1960s. We can change only when human will changes. We can change when we educate ourselves enough to be able to disenthrall ourselves of racism, fear, and hatred. We change when we recognize that forgiveness and reconciliation is more important than vengeance. We can change when we see history in all its complexity, and ambiguity.
Right now, in 2020, Senator Byrd’s past history, his brief time as a Klansman and his strident opposition to civil rights legislation in the 1960s seems more important to some than the legacy he left as one of the best senators the United States has ever had, and a man who did more for the nation and his home state over a longer period of time than any other senator in history. Senators from both parties saw Robert Byrd as a mentor, as a master of the Senate rules, as a gifted orator, as a defender of the Senate and Congress as a co-equal branch of government, and as someone who was practical enough to work across the aisle and make government work. The Senate and the nation saw in Senator Byrd an aspirational figure, who symbolized the nation’s capacity to change.
Several years after I left my position in the House of Representatives, Senator Byrd called on me to help plan for the creation of a center that would promote the study of the U.S. Constitution and the role of Congress in our representative democracy. It would also be a place where his extensive papers would be preserved in an archive that would be open for public use. He selected Shepherd College (now Shepherd University) as the place because it was the West Virginia college closest to the nation’s capital, so we would be able to draw on resources in DC and also have members of Congress and policy makers come to the center for public programs. Senator Byrd’s vision for the center that bears his name is one he gained from a deep reading of the Founders of the nation who said that an educated citizenry was the key to success in a republic where the people had the ultimate power.
When I visited Shepherd College in the late 1990s, the first thing I noticed was that the college library was overcrowded and not well equipped for the computer age. Instead of a separate building for the new center, Senator Byrd, on the advice of Shepherd College officials and my recommendation, agreed the campus should have a new library and the archive he envisioned would be a wing of that expanded building.
This was the plan we followed, and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education now has five congressional collections in its professional archive, and it has become an intellectual and cultural center for the entire university and the region. The facility is available to many civic organizations that can use the center’s auditorium and classrooms. Scholars from around the country can do research in Senator Byrd’s papers using online guides to the collection. Student interns at Shepherd University get hands on experience working in the archives.
One of the first persons to enter the Senate chamber in 2010 to pay his last respects to Senator Byrd as he lay in repose, was Congressman John R. Lewis. I will append the congressman’s remarks about Senator Byrd to this reflection. John Lewis is a powerful man of peace and racial justice. He saw the full arc of Senator Byrd’s life, not just his earlier years. President Barack Obama, speaking at the senator’s funeral in Charleston, saw that arc too and called Senator Byrd his friend. President Obama said Byrd’s life “bent toward justice.” Writing in the Washington Post at the time of Senator Byrd’s passing, Eugene Robinson wrote, “Byrd’s trajectory-from bitter segregationist to beloved dean of the Senate-is actually a hopeful, quintessential American story.”
As we take another, much needed, hard, critical look at the racism that still exists in our nation and keeps us from true greatness, we need to learn from quintessential American stories like that of Robert C. Byrd. The journey he made as an individual is still the journey this nation must make.
Dr. Ray Smock is Director Emeritus of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education. He served as Director from 2002 to 2017. He was Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1984 to 1995. He was historical consultant to the exhibits in the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. He is a biographer of Booker T. Washington, and co-editor of the 14-volume Booker T. Washington Papers.
Robert Byrd: A True Statesman
By United States Representative John Lewis (D-GA)
Though early in our lives we were rooted in very different philosophies, we did share some things in common. Like me, Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings. He was the son of an Appalachian coal miner and I was the son of a southern sharecropper. We both moved from our hometowns at a young age, Senator Byrd from North Carolina to West Virginia and me from Alabama to Georgia. We were both Baptists. We were so different yet, so alike, change in some instances is needed.
In his early years, Senator Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan and was encouraged by the regional grand dragon to run for office. While I was fighting for civil rights, getting arrested, and being beaten by members of the Klan, Senator Byrd stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate giving a 14-hour and 13-minute speech to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the very legislation I was trying to get passed. He later admitted that the filibuster of the Act was his “biggest regret.” He saw the error of his ways.
Sen. Robert Byrd was publicly embarrassed about his membership in the Klan. It was something he apologized for over and over, time and time again, calling his involvement with the organization “a sad mistake” and stating that “intolerance had no place in America.” It became most evident that he had dramatically changed his views after the loss of his grandson in an auto accident. He then realized that black people loved their children just as much as he loved his own. Senator Byrd sought change and with that change he became one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I had ever seen.
Senator Byrd appropriated money for memorials to civil rights’ icons. And when President George W. Bush signed the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Senator Byrd stood alongside me and Senator Ted Kennedy, signing the register, a proud supporter of the legislation’s renewal. How ironic it is that a former Klansman from a coal mining town in West Virginia would stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with an African-American and former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from the Deep South as colleagues in these great halls.
Senator Byrd’s most undeniable demonstration of change was in the year 2008 when the Democratic Party had the task of selecting its candidate for president. The field had been narrowed to two people, two U.S. senators. They were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Though Mrs. Clinton won the state of West Virginia in the primary, Senator Byrd backed the first black presidential candidate with a legitimate chance at victory throwing his support behind Barack Obama.
Senator Byrd and I stood together on many issues but the most prominent issue was our opposition of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He too was a fierce critic of the 2002 congressional resolution that allowed President George. W. Bush to declare war on Iraq.
The citizens of West Virginia have lost a great leader, who so many times ensured that they were well represented in the senate sending appropriated funds back to his home state to build highways, bridges, and buildings. He was a champion in the Senate who strutted around its halls with a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his breast pocket often referring to the document when he felt it was necessary. One of my deepest regrets is that Senator Byrd had invited me to his office on several occasions. However, due to the commanding schedules of both the House and Senate, I never made it over there to visit him. He was a gentleman, kind and always friendly.
This building will sorely miss the commanding presence of our dear Senator Byrd. There is none like him. He made a significant change in his life and that is what counts the most. That is what this country is about, the capacity for each one of us to grow and change. I will miss Senator Byrd; he was a true statesman.
Originally published in The Hill on July 1, 2010. [View the article in its original format]
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