- NAME: Robert C. Byrd
- OCCUPATION: U.S. Representative
- BIRTH DATE: November 20, 1917
- DEATH DATE: June 28, 2010
- EDUCATION: Marshall University, American University, Washington College of Law
- PLACE OF BIRTH: North Wilkesboro, North Carolina
- PLACE OF DEATH: Falls Church, Virginia
- Originally: Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr
Best Known For
Robert C. Byrd is best known as the longest-serving senator and longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress.
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Politician. Born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. on November 20, 1917, in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Barely a year later, Sale's mother died in the influenza epidemic. As per her final wishes, Sale's father sent him to live with aunt and uncle Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They adopted Sale, renaming him Robert Carlyle Byrd, and moved to a farm in the rural coal country of West Virginia.
As a boy, Byrd slaughtered hogs and became a model Sunday school student at the local Baptist church. He also learned to play the fiddle, an instrument he carried with him everywhere. Music would become an important part of Byrd's early life, leading him to perform throughout the region.
Byrd was also an excellent student, and graduated in 1937 as valedictorian of his class at Mark Twain High School. Shortly after finishing school, Byrd married his high school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. Byrd couldn't afford college, so during World War II he took on odd jobs as a welder for cargo ships in Baltimore, Maryland, and Tampa, Florida. But Byrd craved the pursuit of higher learning, the responsibilities of leadership and a sense of belonging. In 1942, he believed he'd found just that as a member of the white supremacist group, the Ku Klux Klan. He described the organization as a group of "upstanding people"—doctors, lawyers, clergy, judges—who he thought could "provide an outlet for [his] talents and ambitions" and also supported his opposition to communism.
Byrd was a member of his klavern for only a year, which he said had basically become a money-making organization, which never physically inflicted violence on anyone while he was a member. After he raised several ranks within the group, Byrd lost interest and stopped paying his dues. He would later refer to his time with the KKK as "the most egregious mistake I've ever made."
His allegiance to the KKK, however, did help push Byrd into the political arena. Encouraged by the grand dragon of his KKK branch, Byrd ran on the Democratic ticket for West Virginia's House of Delegates in 1946. During his campaign, Byrd carried his fiddle in his briefcase and played at each stop on his speaking tour. His skill with the instrument helped to get people's attention on the stump, and had a hand in helping him win the election. From that point forward, Byrd would never lose an election. After his re-election to the House of Delegates in 1948, Byrd campaigned, and won, a spot on the State Senate. Two years later, he would win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Self-educated and well read, Byrd became known for his encyclopedic knowledge of parliamentary procedure, which allowed him to outmaneuvering Republicans with his mastery of the Senate's arcane rules.
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