The 20th century man

Robert Byrd was a man of his times and as the times changed so did he. Byrd experienced and contributed to the entire canvas that was 20th century America.

As a young man he was a member of the Klu Klux Klan and carried his Southern racism into the Senate. In 1964 he voted against the Civil Rights Act. That was Robert Byrd.

But he moved on; he grew with the century and with the country (his attitude toward race parallels a journey taken by my own father).

Here is Robert Byrd’s journey from 1944 to 2003:

1944:

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.
 
— Robert C. Byrd, in a letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), 1944, [8][12

2004: 

In the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People‘s (NAACP)[59] Congressional Report Card for the 108th Congress (spanning the 2003–2004 congressional session), Byrd was awarded with an approval rating of 100 percent for favoring the NAACP’s position in all 33 bills presented to the United States Senate regarding issues of their concern.

He served way too long in the Senate of course but that guaranteed his place in the history books by virtue of longevity alone.

Byrd was known as the parliamentarian of the Senate, an unofficial title conferred because no one knew the arcane convoluted rules of that body better than he did. And long before Newt Gingrich turned it into a political gimmick, Byrd carried his copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket and consulted it often while on the floor of the Senate.

He gave one of the most honorable speeches of his career in 2003 – a very underreported speech. His voice echoed around a nearly empty chamber as he – a man who’d lived through two world wars  – appealed to President Bush to tamp down his zeal for a war of aggression.

He’d overstayed his time certainly and we still need his voice.

The 2003 speech:

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