Josh Marshall: Was Byrd Compromised By the Klan?

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[Josh Marshall is an editor at Talking Points Memo.]

While remembering Robert C. Byrd today we would not do him justice without taking stock of the major blot on his public life: the fact that his early life and political career was inextricably bound up with the politics of racism. That much is not in dispute. Byrd spent the latter part of his life admitting as much and apologizing for it. The outstanding question is whether it compromised him in the bulk of his public career that took place after the 1960s when he became a more or less conventional Democrat on issues of Civil Rights.

First a brief review of the history. In his early twenties Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan and became the leader of the unit is his small town in West Virginia. According to Byrd's account he wrote the head of the national organization in late 1941 or early 1942 and said he wanted to join the organization. Eventually he was instrumental in recruiting a local group which eventually got the imprimatur of the national Klan and elected Byrd their "Exalted Cyclops", or leader of the local group, in addition to "Kleagle", or chief local recruiter.

Through his life, Byrd kept to a more or less accurate but often still sanitized history of his involvement in the Klan. Indeed, quite apart from attitudes toward the Klan today, Byrd's membership almost cut his political career short in the cradle when he first ran for the House in 1952 when his Democratic primary opponent revealed his membership in the Klan....

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