Byrd’s legerdemain in fleecing the taxpayer may have made him a legend among West Virginia voters. But it is his problematic early career in politics, which he was never really able to live down, that made him such a puzzling figure. You may never be able to go home, but can anyone ever completely escape their past? It would seem that for some politicians of a particular political party, the answer depends entirely on how eager various constituencies are to forgive and forget. However, it would be too simple to ascribe Byrd’s electoral success over the decades with African American and even progressive voters to purely partisan factors. Unlike former Democrats-turned-southern-Republicans like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond (who never officially apologized for his past views on race), Byrd remained in the Democratic Party and embraced the agenda of racial “equality.” His apologies for past attitudes were oft-repeated, which seemed to imbue his mea culpas with a patina of sincerity.
As mere mortals, we are not vouchsafed the ability to peer into the souls of another and ascertain whether a change of heart on an issue like race is genuine or not. All we have to judge someone is their actions. In that respect, Byrd’s vote opposing the establishment of a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. in 1983 raises legitimate questions about just how sincere he was in his turn away from the dark side of racial politics.
Then again, his vote against the MLK holiday is not that surprising. In the recent PBS documentary Roads to Memphis that follows the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and James Earl Ray those last few months before King’s assassination, Byrd was heard in an old TV clip lambasting King for the riot that broke out during the civil rights leader’s first visit to Memphis in support of the sanitation workers, all but calling him a coward:
If anybody is to be hurt of killed in the disorder which follows in the wake of his highly publicized marches and demonstrations, he apparently is going to be sure that it will be someone other than Martin Luther King. What happened yesterday in Memphis was totally uncalled for, just as Martin Luther King’s proposed march on Washington is uncalled for and unnecessary. And I hope that well-meaning negro leaders and individuals in the negro community in Washington will now take a new look at this man who gets other people into trouble and then takes off like a scared rabbit.
Complicating this picture of a King hater even further, Byrd supported the establishment of a memorial to MLK on the National Mall.
The Old South and the New South; Byrd’s life and career was a bridge that spanned the gulch between eras that many Americans of a certain age still find hard to fathom. In the period of less than a lifetime, America has gone from a country where a person of color could not get served a sandwich in a southern diner to electing an African American to the most powerful office in the world largely based on votes from white Americans. The velocity of thought this change represents is so profound that to this day, some refuse to accept it. It appears that Senator Byrd not only recognized the new reality, but embraced it. Whatever votes it may have cost him, the political calculus was a positive in the end.
Racism is not unknown in America, although it is not as nauseatingly a casual thing as it was when Robert Byrd began his political career. However, we do not have the late senator to thank for that. Whatever his change of heart, regardless of how sincere you believe his transmogrification from Kluxer to civil rights supporter, the fact is, he stood in the way of racial progress for nearly three decades of his five-decade political life, and profited politically for doing so. Whatever his contributions to the civic life of the United States, this singular fact will haunt whatever the legacy of Robert Byrd. It will also color the attitudes of future historians who must come to grips with the narrative of this extraordinarily complex man and the difficult times in which he lived.