Who Was Robert C. Byrd?
Senator Robert Byrd was the longest-serving senator and the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress. He filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Vietnam War, but later backed civil rights measures and criticized the Iraq War. He was briefly a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s, but later left the group and denounced racial intolerance.
Robert Byrd was 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."
Entry Into Politics
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. But he still didn't have a college degree. After winning his seat in the House of Representatives for a second time in 1952, the politician managed to enroll in night courses for law school, despite lacking a bachelor's degree. He was still attending school in 1958, when he defeated the Republican incumbent, W. Chapman Rivercomb, for a spot in the U.S. Senate.
In 1963, after 10 years of classes, Byrd graduated cum laude with his Juris Doctor from American University. President Kennedy, the school's commencement speaker, handed Byrd his diploma. After receiving his degree, Byrd started the Scholastic Recognition Award in 1969, which awards the valedictorian at each West Virginia public and private high school with a savings bond. His financial generosity didn't stop there; appointed a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1960, Byrd became known for using his coveted position as a way to garner additional funds for poverty-stricken West Virginia. He delivered millions in federal aid to his state to build roads, schools and hospitals. The move made him very popular with his constituency, earning him the title "West Virginian of the 20th Century." Critics decried his favoritism with the title "King of Pork," in reference to what they saw as pork barrel spending.
Anti-Civil Rights Record
Byrd's early votes in Congress reflected his roots in Southern anti-Black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic teachings. Byrd initially denounced civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as a "self-seeking rabble rouser," and he worked in opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark law that removed many barriers for Black Americans. He also voted against the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which protected the voting rights of American minorities, making a 15-hour filibuster speech in an attempt to keep the legislation from passing. He later apologized for both these votes.
After beating out incumbent senator Ted Kennedy for the position of Senate majority whip in 1971, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, Byrd's name was mentioned as a possible Supreme Court candidate. His lack of law experience and his ties to the KKK, however, prevented his nomination. This didn't prevent him from winning re-election as the majority whip, then earning the title of Senate majority leader in 1977. Byrd also stayed busy as a musician, recording his own album of fiddle music, Mountain Fiddler, in 1978. This same year, he appeared on the television program Hee Haw to play fiddle. He gave up playing in the 1980s because of a tremor in his hands.
Byrd would go on to become Senate minority leader in 1981, after the Republicans took control in the 1980 elections. He returned to the role of majority leader in 1986, until he stepped down from the post in 1988. He was then given the influential post of Appropriations Committee chairman.
In 1994, Byrd, who had by then written several award-winning volumes on Senate history, earned an honorary bachelor's degree from Marshall University. Byrd was 77 years old at the time. During this time, Byrd began to change his political views to reflect more traditionally Democratic leanings, eventually became a leading backer of civil rights and a pro-choice supporter. He also became an outspoken detractor of President George W. Bush's policies after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. He opposed creating the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and in 2003 criticized Bush's jet-landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln to announce "Mission Accomplished" in toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein during the Iraq war.
On June 12, 2006, Byrd made history by became the longest serving U.S. Senator in the history of the United States. That November, he was elected to a ninth full term in the Senate. His wife would not get to share in Byrd's joy; Erma Byrd died March 25, 2006, after a protracted illness. When Byrd became the longest serving member of Congress in history on November 18, 2009, having served more than 20,775 days, Byrd remarked on the sadness of not sharing the moment with Erma. "My only regret is that my beloved wife, companion and confidant, my dear Erma, is not here with me," he said. "I know that she is looking down from the heavens smiling at me and saying, 'Congratulations my dear Robert—but don't let it go to your head.'"
Legacy and Death
Byrd died on June 28, 2010, at the age of 92. During his tenure, Byrd was elected to more leadership positions than any other Senator in history. At the time of his death, he was the highest-ranking Senator in the majority party, known as the President pro tempore. He served as the senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was the Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, and a member of the Senate Budget, Armed Services, and Rules and Administration Committees. He had cast more than 18,689 roll call votes—more votes than any other Senator in U.S. history—and held a 97 percent attendance record in his more than 50 years in the Senate.
Byrd is survived by daughters Mona and Marjorie, as well as six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
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