Virginia governor Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist, had barely finished publicly touting infanticide last week when a page from his 1984 medical school yearbook suddenly went viral. The page showed a photo of a man in blackface standing beside a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The Virginia Democrat acknowledged he was one of the men but didn’t say which. Northam then denied that he was in the photo but acknowledged he once darkened his face to look like Michael Jackson. Northam apologized for his actions and Democrats were divided about how to respond.
As CNN reported, “Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner refrained from calling on him to resign,” but freshman Virginia Democrat Rep. Elaine Luria called for Northam to step down. Sen. Kamala Harris, a candidate for president, declare “the stain of racism should have no place in the halls of government” and called for Northam to step aside. So did former vice president Joe Biden, who said “Northam has lost all moral authority.” As the career of another prominent Democrat shows, this type of outrage is a new development.
West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, a mentor to Hillary Clinton, served in the U.S. Senate for a record 51 years, and as Senate majority leader from 1977-1981 and 1987-1989. Before election to the Senate in 1958, Byrd served six years in Congress. And before that, he served as a leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
In 1942, Byrd formed a new Klan chapter in Sophia, West Virginia, and in 1944 wrote to segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo, Mississippi Democrat, “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.” Byrd rose to the rank of Exalted Cyclops and in 1946, wrote to the Klan’s Grand Wizard, “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.”
In 1952 Byrd said “I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization,” and in past nine years, “I have never been interested in the Klan.” Byrd duly gained election to Congress and went on to greater fame in the Senate.
In 1964, Senator Byrd led a filibuster against the Civil Rights Act and the next year he opposed the Voting Rights Act. Byrd also opposed the anti-poverty programs of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society plan. “We can take the people out of the slums,” said Byrd during the debates, “but we cannot take the slums out of the people.” The West Virginia Democrat also railed against welfare cheaters, but like his Ku Klucker past, that did not impede his rise in the Democrat Party. In 1971, Byrd defeated Ted Kennedy, still in the throes of Chappaquiddick, to become Democratic whip.
“The Man Who Runs the Senate,” ran the headline on the September, 1975, Atlantic feature on Byrd by Sanford J. Ungar. The author bills Byrd as the next majority leader “and just possibly a favorite son at the 1976 Democratic Convention.” For his part, Byrd proclaims “I feel that I can do any job that the American people wish to assign me” and “would not reject the nomination.” Ungar noted that Byrd plays the fiddle and on the Senate floor protested the cancelation of “Gunsmoke.” Like Marshall Matt Dillon, hero of the long-running television program, Byrd was a hardliner on crime.
“I say that it is better to build more prisons and hire more jailers,” Byrd said, “than it is to allow American cities to deteriorate further into jungles in which no one is safe.” That evoked Byrd’s past in the Klan but in a piece of nearly 6,000 words Ungar says only that some derided Byrd’s membership “in his youth,” and his admission that joining the Klan was “a 100 percent mistake.” Some observers had to wonder.
In 1967, Byrd voted against the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1991, when embattled Bush nominee Clarence Thomas pushed back against the “high-tech lynching of uppity blacks,” Byrd dismissed it a “diversionary tactic.” Byrd supported Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment and like 45 other Democrats voted against the African American Thomas.
Perhaps that’s what Hillary Clinton had in mind when she called Byrd her “friend and mentor” after her fellow Democrat passed away in 2010 the age of 92. He’s forgotten, but not gone.
As Byrd confirmed, you can take a person out of the Klan but you can’t take the Klan out of the person. Byrd’s leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan did not impede his rise in the Democrat Party, which now proclaims outrage over Ralph Northam’s blackface and Ku Klucker photo. At this writing, the infanticide promoter has yet to resign.