Robert Byrd was a Senator from West Virginia from 1959 -2010, making him the longest-serving member of that body in the history of the United States. By the latter years of his tenure in the Senate, his accumulated power and knowledge of that body were nearly immeasurable. Still, he suffered considerable political embarrassment over discussions in the press and other media regarding his membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Byrd didn’t simply join the Klan. When no chapter was available for him to join, he actively recruited friends and friends of friends, pumping hands, explaining beliefs and tenets, cajoling, persuading, and calling in favors, to create a new chapter in Sophia, West Virginia. He was successful in bringing in 150 new members, who understandably elected him as their leading officer, with the title of Exalted Cyclops. Soon the Cyclops was in correspondence with noted Klansman Theodore Bilbo, explaining his opposition to a desegregated military and deploring “race mongrel(s)”.
Byrd promoted both the Klan and his position in it, not shy about addressing senior Klan leaders (Grand Wizards) with statements such as “â¦The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirthâ¦”. But when Byrd began planning his run for the House of Representatives his ardor for the Klan cooled.
He would later explain to voters that his interest was primarily along the lines of anti-communist activities. By the end of his career Byrd was openly lamenting ever being involved with the Klan, stating that “â¦intolerance had no place in Americaâ¦”, a far cry from his statements decades earlier, when he referred to potential intermingling of races as “â¦a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds.”