Remembering Byrd’s Racism

June 29th, 2010 at 11:54 am | 37 Comments |

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Yesterday, the media was pushing hagiographic narratives about the redemptive story of Robert Byrd’s past on race relations. The moral of the story is that you can always make up for being a racist son-of-a-bitch. But the real subtext of the story is: being a Democrat means that you can promote segregation, join the KKK, vote against both black Supreme Court nominees, and use the word “nigger” on national television — and still be remembered as a promoter of black interests.

Robert Byrd’s KKK membership is dismissed by his worshipers as youthful indiscretion. It wasn’t. It was the beginning of a long and sordid history filled with hatred and bias.

Highlights of Robert Byrd’s history of race relations include:

– 1942: Joins the KKK; eventually rises to the rank of “Exalted Cyclops.”

– 1945: Writes “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.”

– 1947: Says in a letter that the Klan is needed “like never before” and declares that he is “anxious to see its rebirth.”

– 1964: Attempts to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It wasn’t out of principled libertarian support for property rights. Cites a racist study claiming that black people’s brains are statistically smaller than white people’s.

– 1967: Votes against Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination. Went to J. Edgar Hoover to see if Marshall had any Communist ties that could ruin his nomination.

– 1968: Tells the FBI that it’s time that Martin Luther King, Jr., “met his Waterloo.” FBI ignores him.

– 1991: Votes Against Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination. Becomes the only senator in the body to have voted against both black Supreme Court nominees.

– 2001: Refers to what he called “white niggers” on national television. Try to imagine, say, Haley Barbour being given a pass after calling someone a “white nigger.”

We’re told that he recanted his views. Great. So did Strom Thurmond. But those words — just words — rightly got him nowhere. If Robert Byrd’s grandson runs for Congress and is defeated by a black candidate — as happened to Thurmond’s grandon in South Carolina last week in a Republican primary — will the media breathlessly report it as the end of a racist era in the Democratic Party’s sordid history, as they did of Tim Scott’s overwhelming victory?

Do I need to draw you a picture? 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. The final relic of federally-approved segregation left us. That’s the real story: it’s the end of an era. What brave news outlet will report that?

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37 Comments so far ↓

  • Rabiner

    While it is easy to compare Strom Thurmond to Robert Byrd it is not a fair comparison when looking back at history. Strom Thurmond was identified with his 1949 Dixiecrat campaign for President whose platform was based on segregation. Robert Byrd while having a racist background as you’ve documented did not reach the level of historic importance as Strom Thurmond except in his longevity in the Senate.

  • Fear & Loathing » Blog Archive » The KKKing of Pork.

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  • theevilmrrogers

    The events that you picked have signs of heavy cherry picking; one is a large time gap between the first 6 examples and the last two and a gap in how objectionable they are. To test weather your picture of Byrd is accurate I checked the NAACP’s record on him.

    111th congress – 42% Grade Received F
    110th congress – 80% Grade Received B
    109th congress – 82% Grade Received B
    108th congress – 100% Grade Received A
    107th congress – 78% Grade Received C
    106th congress – 93% Grade Received A

    Average Grade 79.16% C+

    While I admit this is only a record of a little over the past 10 years, it does not paint the same picture of a text book racist that you have created with your article. Your article has no complexity; an element that seems necessary the case of a man who has been referred to as the “pillar of the senate” and has had such a long carrier. It is the same as calling Justice Hugo Black a textbook racist because of his membership in the KKK.
    Even as a counter-point to what you consider white-washing by the media, a basic level of honesty requires some concessions that your point is not perfect, instead it looks like you had your conclusion before you had your facts. My conclusion, after some basic reserch, is that you cherry picked some choice facts to tint a man in a much more negative light less than 48 hrs after he died.

  • balconesfault

    Does anyone really worship Robert Byrd?

    What … is he the patron saint of expensive highway projects?

  • Slide

    Such a gracious post.

  • pnumi2

    You didn’t have to be a racist to vote against Clarence Thomas.

    The Justice who rarely asks questions during sessions of the Supreme Court and who recently informed the nation that he would do away with that time-honored practice.

  • busboy33

    “– 1967: Votes against Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination. ”

    Well, as I’ve learned during the Kagen hearings, Justice Marshall was the closest to pure evil we’ve ever had on the bench, so I suppose this is a good thing, right?


    “Does anyone really worship Robert Byrd?”

    It’s the New Conservative mindset. Everybody worships political players. Liberals worship Obama and Byrd (and I guess Pelosi and Reid anbd whomever else is a bad bad person) and Conservatives worship Beck, Rush, Palin, and Saint Ronnie.

    Don’t know when this attitude of veneration crept into the GOP, but it’s a little off-putting.

  • CAPryde

    I’m not sure what’s more amusing: the 23-year gap on your proof of lifelong racism, or the fact that the thing after the gap is, “Democrat votes against Republican nominee for Supreme Court.”

    By this logic, every Senate Republican who voted against Sotomayor is a Latino-hating racist. And every Senate Republican who voted against Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and now Kagan is a sexist woman-hater.

    Seriously? It’s okay to dislike a Democratic senator–I have no reason to love Byrd–but it looks bad when you allow those political biases to drive the analysis off a cliff in search of a rhetorical cheap shot.

    Suggestion: if the fact fail to support the argument, then the argument may be flawed.

  • Carney

    I have to say, some of the liberals’ criticisms here are valid.

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  • rbottoms

    If black folks gave a damn about Robert Byrd… well we’d give a damn about your article.

    Robert Byrd’s ancient history as an evil southern cracker is of no importance to us.

    We do care about Rand Paul and his discomfort with the Voting Rights Act because he’s not a doddering old man we knew on his way to meet his maker.

    He’s a young fool full of juice anxious to rip apart the advances we’ve made in the last 50 years.

    I know it bugs Republicans that we despise your party, but you have done jack and shite to change our perceptions of the GOP as having way too many watermelon joke sending mayors and Confederate Flag loving governors.

    And we don’t believe for a minute your Road to Damascus conversion about the wonderful MLK who Reagan went out of his way to imply was a commie.

    Elect some black folks to congress and then give us a call.

  • busboy33


    If this is the same rbottoms that used to give Rick fits over at RWNH, then it’s good to see you again!

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  • Gus

    The white nigger comment was beyond the pale and showed a disturbing view of racial issues. Voting against Clarence Thomas showed good sense.

  • abj

    pnumi2 -

    Thomas’ silence on the bench doesn’t mean anything. I’m an attorney, and I can tell you that 99.99999% of the time, the judge has already made up his/her mind based on the pleadings. It’s rare that hearings actually reveal anything, since the lawyers have already fleshed out their arguments in written form.

  • forkboy1965

    If it makes Republicans or Conservatives feel any better this fairly left-of-center Democrat had no love for Byrd.

    His background was, at least for me, incredibly unforgivable. Only in the Old South could he have garnered such love.

  • Rabiner


    While that is true that a justice has made up their mind before the hearings many times I’ll go with what my sister says about Thomas (she’s also an attorney). She thinks that Thomas is intellectually lazy and you know what his decision will be based on his strict constructionist philosophy that the constitution should be applied today like it was in 1787.

  • LFC

    She thinks that Thomas is intellectually lazy and you know what his decision will be based on his strict constructionist philosophy that the constitution should be applied today like it was in 1787.

    Any justice who believes they can project the thinking that took place well over 200 years ago is full of s***. And any justice who thinks that this would even be a good idea should not be a justice in the modern world. They’ve essentially admitted their incompetence.

  • balconesfault

    abj: Thomas’ silence on the bench doesn’t mean anything.

    Well, it actually does – it means that he doesn’t really care to contribute in one significant way to the judicial record. Opinions (including dissenting opinions) are the primary way that the court signals their judicial thinking and intent to the world … but the questions from the bench are another powerful sign not only of what is important in this decision, but what will be important to consider in future decisions.

    As for Thomas … a good friend/ex-college roommate was a clerk for another justice back in the late 80′s. Per him, the joke among clerks at the time was that Thomas was appointed so that Scalia could have two votes.

  • busboy33

    Let’s just take the hypothesis of the OP at 100% face value — Sen. Byrd was a racist.

    And now he’s dead.

    Why do or should I care? I believe Strom Thurmond was a racist. He also is dead. As a result, I don’t think too much about Strom. Why does it matter what I think about him, or Sen. Byrd, or Sen. Kennedy, or any of the ex-legislators that are now dead?

    Didn’t we have a similar conversation last year when Sen. Kennedy died? How he really was a bad bad bad man? Was there a practical point aside from trying to (not so) subtly highlight that any Democrat is a scion of evil? If that’s the point . . . I got it. Let’s move on to something that has some actual relevance on today and tomorrow.

    I just don’t see what the purpose of the Byrd and Kennedy attacks were.

  • LFC

    BusBoy, it’s just a bit of venting that signifies little. I have to admit that I was more than a bit disgusted by the lionizing of Tip O’Neill at his death. To this day I consider him to have been outrageously corrupt. That being said, you are right that my opinions had no relevance at the time, nor do they today. It’s just political chatter so don’t take it too seriously.

  • sanzoneja

    I don’t see any examples of his “racism” of any substance after 1968. There is much more to criticize in Byrd’s extensive record than his early racism, which by all indications dissipated before the early 70′s.

  • mlindroo

    > 1991: Votes Against Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination.
    > Becomes the only senator in the body to have voted against both black
    > Supreme Court nominees.

    As others have pointed out, describing Thomas as your archetypal African American nominee is just nuts. 46 Democrats voted against Thomas simply because they felt he was a right wing extremist and because of the Anita Hill scandal.

    An analogous situation would be if Obama picked a left-wing radical SCOTUS nominee who also happens to be a white Southern male and a devout born-again member of some left wing Evangelical church. Would Knepper then argue that the GOP opposes white Christian males from the South if it does not support a very liberal member of this particular ethnic group?


  • Mike Hunt

    I can understand giving undergraduates a leg up and helping them out as contributors here at FF. But David, let’s be serious now. Why hack undergraduates? Surely there are very bright conservative minds out there who haven’t yet completed their BAs. Why not hire them? Is this guy your sister’s husband’s brother’s cousin or something?

    You should at least insist that these young hacks (Knepper, Ryan, and others) stick around and argue it out with the commentators. At least the older hack in your employ, Guardiano, does that. At worst, the young hacks will get their feet wet actually arguing something as opposed to the “post and run” they tend to employ.

  • Kevin B

    When I got to the word “worshipers” in the second paragraph, I realized I was reading something unserious. There are a few word choices that would have been worse (“fanboys” and “libtards” spring to mind), but “worshipers” makes it clear you’re not writing to convince anyone of anything. You’re only writing to irritate people who disagree with you and amuse those who agree.

  • connor25

    Yes, Byrd was a racist, but that was some time ago. He repented. Most of the Southern racists migrated to the GOP thanks to Goldwater and Nixon in the 60′s and now are in high positions. Republicans should focus on getting the racists out of their party because they’re hurting the party in many ways. Look at Audra Shay and Rand Paul. (Unfortunately, people like CO Independent and Carney don’t get that, they’d rather blame the welfare state for non-whites not being attracted to the GOP (standard right-wing excuse for not reaching out) and somehow reaching out is the equivalent to becoming Democrats You posters have seen my arguments with CO)

    rbottoms, you know, I can tell you’re furious at the party for not calling out the racists by your posts. From all the times I heard blacks bitching about the GOP being hostile, I don’t see anyone (maybe a few) in that community trying to make it inclusive. I hear so many complaints, but no one does a thing about it.

  • rbottoms

    From all the times I heard blacks bitching about the GOP being hostile, I don’t see anyone (maybe a few) in that community trying to make it inclusive.

    It’s not my responsibility to convince the GOP to end their race-baiting ways. As we all know Rush is not a racist, he’s just a racial provocateur. And sure Reagan thought MLK was a communist and supported the Apartheid regime on South Africa, what’s wrong with that?

    Being I am a Democrat, I want the Republicans to lose and if they choose to continue acting in a way the repels 95% of black voters, and now seem seem bent on similar numbers with Hispanics, who am I to stop them.

    We have our own nuts and racists on this side of the aisle, but they aren’t hosts of hugely popular radio and television shows, nor are they for the most part elected officials. What office exactly has Louis Farrakhan ever been elected to? What legislation does Code Pink write? How many legions do Animal Liberation command?

    When members of congress spew hatred towards ObamaHitlerMao, flirt with the birthers, and hint the we currently live in a totalitarian state it is nothing more than hysterical race baiting brought on by the election of a black man to the presidency.

    Where were all these patriots when Bush was busy shoveling a Trillion dollars into the furnace of Iraq? What changed between 2008 and 2009 that drives these foam flecked people into the streets and cause governors to talk about secession?

    The teabaggers aren’t all racists, but the enough of them are that it would be incumbent upon the GOP to do something about it, except that they find it useful to turn a blind eye as long as it means they might gain one more seat in November.

  • connor25

    The teabaggers I agree with you on that rbottoms. I understand where you’re coming from, it’s just you keep repeating it. Believe me, I’m critical of the GOP on the race-baiting. Remember me telling CO Independent the history and how he completely ignored it and still thought groups should be written off. It’s people like him that keep those groups away, you’ve seen it.

    Believe me, I refuse to defend the shitty image on race the GOP has. I’m a reluctant moderate Republican for a long time after waking up and seeing the mess the South left in the party.

    Then whose responsibility is it if not yours? That statement pretty much told me how you feel about wanting the GOP to change. Someone else should do it.

  • balconesfault

    The problem that I see that the Republicans continue to face is that when political contests get heated and tight – it is almost cliche that you see Republican candidates going to “dog whistle” politics.

    Suddenly, the ads come out talking about crime … and featuring scary black or hispanic actors in shady scenes. And in 2008, you get the overt labeling of Obama as “the Other”.

    Seriously? That’s how you envision attracting minorities to your party? By branding the first black guy to ever get a major party nod for President and “the Other”?

  • rbottoms

    That statement pretty much told me how you feel about wanting the GOP to change. Someone else should do it

    Hello?? Democrat here.

    I don’t care if the GOP self-destructs.

    We don’t have lynching in this country anymore, so unless I become a statistic like Amadou Diallo, it doesn’t affect me none.

    Why should I care if one party makes no effort to court roughly 20% of the population and is working hard at pissing off the fastest minority, that isn’t us?

  • tequilamockingbird

    A lazy, dishonest article. Fortunately, that seems to be the pretty well unanimous opinion of the other posters.

    I’ll remember Byrd for his courageous stand against the Iraq invasion, one that so many cowardly Democrats wouldn’t take.

  • busboy33


    “I have to admit that I was more than a bit disgusted by the lionizing of Tip O’Neill at his death.”

    Sure, but I just remind myself they’re not really being lionized — you work in the House or Senate for 40+ years, you automatically get a public “what a great guy” show, regardless of racism, dead hookers, really being a bastard, whatever. Conversely, even if you literally raised the dead, if you die in your 1st or 2nd term the best you could hope for is a moment of silence and/or an after-hours memorial/fundraiser/networking party.

    On the other hand, I do gotta say the “lying in state in the Senate” is both creepy and annoying. I don’t care if he is or isn’t a saint . . . I pay for that place so those lazy s.o.b.s can work. Don’t be parking a dead guy on the floor and calling an early weekend. It’s Washington D.C. — y’all have plenty of showy venues to put the body while you get on with your jobs.

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