Fox News reports that Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia died earlier today. He was 92 year old.
Byrd, Fox says, “had been plagued by health problems in recent years and was confined to a wheelchair.”
He served in the U.S. Senate since 1959, which made him the longest serving senator in American history.
To call Byrd a controversial figure is quite an understatement. When he was 25 years old, he joined the racist Ku Klux Klan because he was, DiscoverTheNetworks explains, “enamored of the [organization’s] parades he witnessed in his youth.” He even became Exalted Cyclops of his local chapter.
When the Truman administration tried to segregate the army in 1945, Byrd wrote an angry letter to “Mississippi’s segregationist senator Theodore Bilbo, wherein he expressed anger over the Truman administration’s efforts to integrate the U.S. military.” He wrote: “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side … 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.”
It was only in 1952 that Byrd severed his ties with the KKK. Since then he has apologized for his “youthful transgressions.” However, he still defended the Klan in his 2005 memoir, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, describing it as “a fraternal assembly” of “upstanding people” who at no time engaged in, or preached violence against, blacks, Jews, or Catholics.
Yet, Byrd was welcomed by the Democratic Party. He joined the House of Representatives in 1952 for this party, where he served for six years. In 1958 he was elected for his first term in the Senate.