WASHINGTON, D.C.-Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), former President pro tem of the Senate, and the longest-serving Congressman to have been a member of the universally-despised Ku Klux Klan, died Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital after a long battle with illness. Byrd was 92.
Byrd, who during World War II wrote that he would "rather see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again" than "fight in the Armed Forces with a Negro by [his] side", claimed to have joined the hate group in 1942 out of a desire for excitement and support for the group's anti-communist stance. Byrd further claimed that he quit the Klan approximately a year later out of disinterest. In 1946, however, he wrote a letter to a local Imperial Wizard saying that "The Klan is needed today as never before" and how he was "anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation."
Byrd's disillusionment and lack of enthusiasm with the Klan was evident by his earning the title of Kleagle (Klan slang for recruitment officer) and eventually rising to the rank of Exalted Cyclops (the leader of a local Klan chapter).
Byrd, whose remarkable 57 years of service in Congress were only occasionally punctuated by reminders that he was once a member of a terrorist white supremacist group, earned popularity among the left-wing in recent years with his consistent and outspoken opposition to the Iraq War.
Among the many highlights of the former Klansman's illustrious career include filibustering and voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as being the only senator to vote against the nominations of both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.
The long-serving Democrat, who claimed that he first considered politics as a career when told by a fellow Klansmen that he had a talent for leadership, also strongly opposed President Clinton's attempt to allow gays to serve openly in the military in 1993, calling homosexuality an "aberrant behavior." He also supported the Defense of Marriage Act, saying that it protected "the institution of marriage as set forth in the Holy Bible."
The West Virginian, referred to by colleagues as the "conscience of the Senate" also used the phrase "white nigger" in a nationally-televised interview in 2001, a remark that, were he a Republican, would almost certainly have ended his political career.
Byrd's tenure as a former member of the nation's most feared hate group while serving in the legislative branch is unmatched; the closest contender being Alabamian Hugo Black who served as that state's senator for 10 years, before revelations about his racist past forced him to be elevated to the Supreme Court in 1937.
"Senator Byrd was truly a remarkable force in the illustrious career of the U.S. Senate," said political analyst Ken Waterson. "His consistent energy and passion were virtually unmatched in the over 50 years he gave to Congress. He also served as a living reminder of the time when the Democratic Party existed solely to promote institutional racism, something so few of our young people today realize. An American artifact is lost."
President Obama is expected to honor Byrd, who, had he gotten his way early in life, likely would have ensured a black man would never become president.