From Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row
‘The man called Robert C. Byrd’
Published Jul 23, 2010 2:15 PM
Taken from a July 4, 2010, audio column at www.prisonradio.org. Go to
www.millions4mumia.org to read updates on Mumia’s ongoing struggle for
The longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate would’ve been a title
cherished by Robert Carlisle Byrd, who became, among many other things, a
Byrd’s beginnings were from the white Southern poor and he hailed from a
family of coal miners. Despite this poverty, Byrd had a prodigious memory, and
he excelled in high school.
But Byrd, being politically ambitious, was much more than a bright schoolboy.
By his young adulthood he was a ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan, the white
terrorist arm of the southern Democratic Party. In West Virginia, this was a
ticket to high political office and Byrd punched his ticket well.
He began as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1953. Six years
later he entered the Senate and except by death, never left. From 1959 to 2010
he became the embodiment of West Virginia, and the state became a reflection of
him. There are so many roads, schools, airports and government buildings named
after him that the state might best be known as Byrdsylvania.
His biographers cite his KKK membership as a youthful indiscretion, a passing
fancy almost. But Byrd, historian that he was, made history of sorts when he
opposed the elevation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court in 1967.
Marshall was, at that time, one of the most successful lawyers in America,
winning 29 of 32 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, including Brown v. Board
of Education. He was a federal appeals court judge for the Second Circuit (up
in New York) for five years, and he was U.S. Solicitor General for two
Why did Byrd oppose Marshall, perhaps the most distinguished lawyer of his
generation? Because he didn’t want to see a Black man on the court.
Youthful indiscretion? Byrd was 50 when he voted against Marshall’s
Two years before, when riots erupted across America, Sen. Byrd would opine on
the Senate floor that perhaps planned parenthood should be introduced to Blacks
so that they wouldn’t have so many children who would grow up and be
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr., in North Carolina, was a
man of his time and place.
Perhaps he distinguished himself from the pack best when he rose to the floor
— a copy of the Constitution in his shaking hand — and denounced
the Bush regime’s mad march to war in Iraq as a violation of the
Constitution. He voted against authorization for war, saying it was the duty of
the Congress to declare war — not the president.
He rose from humble beginnings, with pluck, smarts and dogged determination. He
held his office like a pit bull on a bone. He played the fiddle with
But he was a Klansman at heart.
Source: Berry, Mary Frances, “Black Resistance; White Law”
(N.Y.: Penguin, 1996 (orig. 1971), p.169.
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