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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 freedom.

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 respected historian.

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 years.

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. Period.

Youthful indiscretion? Byrd was 50 when he voted against Marshall’s confirmation.

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 unemployed.

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 considerable skill.

But he was a Klansman at heart.

Source: Berry, Mary Frances, “Black Resistance; White Law” (N.Y.: Penguin, 1996 (orig. 1971), p.169.