The desire to not speak ill of the newly deceased is an honorable one, but the positioning of Robert Byrd‘s Klan membership as some youthful mistake that he hadn’t fully considered and later abandoned is pretty grating. He wasn’t some tertiary member of his Klan chapter; he was its leader.  He was an ardent segregationist who opposed the integration of the military and voted against the Civil Right Act. He changed his stances because they went out of fashion and were politically toxic. When Republicans complained about a double standard on how they were treated on race, they often pointed to the fact that the Democratic caucus had a former Klansman in its ranks, and that he somehow remained a respected Democrat in good standing. It’s a self-serving criticism, of course, but that doesn’t mean it ain’t true.

But there’s been a stark (and telling difference) between the eulogizing of Robert Byrd, the long-time senator from West Virginia, and that of Ted Kennedy, another  Democratic stalwart of the Senate. Besides all the ink that was spilled discussing Camelot and the considerable goodwill he’d engendered among his colleagues during his long Senate career, Kennedy’s obituaries also talked about his legislative accomplishments, which were formidable. Byrd’s obituaries, on the other hand, discuss the fact that other lawmakers held him in high regard and how he used his pull on the appropriations committee to funnel tons of loot back to West Virginia. This is relatively thin gruel. There’s probably an argument to make that the dough he brought home has helped his beleaguered state in ways that are hard to quantify, but considering how long he served, it seems like there should be something more substantial to praise about him than the fact that he held sacred the Senate’s traditions.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Ash

    Thank you! I did a project on this guy back in high school. I remember coming across something about a family member dying in a car crash that somehow led to his realization that “Black people are people too. They also love their families”…or something of that nature. It made no sense. I guess he gets a pass since he was a Democrat.

  • My name is JT and I endorse this message. Well done.

  • Darth Paul

    I guess the praise is because he was good at being a politician (nevermind ideology), which he obviously was. But the same is true for Pim Fortuyn, Jesse Helms, PW Botha, and a host of other unsavory characters.

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  • Oh America.

    “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side … Rather I should die a thousand times,…”- Byrd.

    “The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation” -Byrd

    RIP. Hope a black man replaces you.

  • Christian

    Gotta love that classic revisionism!

    Wow…Byrd was in the cuckoo’s nest…