Political Hay

Of Senators and Segregation

Robert Byrd, Strom Thurmond, and the usual double standards.

By 6.30.10

Shortly after I had learned of the passing of Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia I came across his obituary in the New York Times. The headline read:

Robert Byrd, Respected Voice of the Senate, Dies at 92

It is worth noting that Byrd died almost seven years to the day when Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina passed away. Naturally, I was curious as to what the headline in the New York Times read when he left this mortal coil:

Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100

It is also worth noting that both obituaries were written by Adam Clymer. Now in fairness to Mr. Clymer, it was very likely not he who chose those headlines. But the fact that Byrd and Thurmond were described so very differently in death strongly reflects the liberal bias of the Times. Had Thurmond remained a Democrat, would the Times have summed him up as a foe of integration?

Now there is no dispute that Thurmond was a foe of integration. Indeed, Thurmond once spoke on the floor of the Senate for more than 24 hours in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 late in August of that year. Among many other things, Thurmond railed against Brown v. Board of Education; the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision which desegregated public schools. Thurmond described Brown as "the outstanding judicial blunder of all time." Understandably, this would deservedly earn Thurmond the enmity of African Americans.

Yet Robert Byrd could equally be described as a foe of integration. During the early 1940s, Byrd was not only a member of the Ku Klux Klan he recruited others to join their cause. Say what you will about Thurmond, but he never joined the Klan. In 1938, when Thurmond served in the South Carolina State Senate, he spoke out against lynching and said that the Klan stood for "the most abominable type of lawlessness."

Byrd would later oppose President Truman's integration of the Armed Forces. He made it clear he would not fight for his country "with a Negro by my side." But there was more:

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.

Although it was the integration of the Armed Forces that would in part prompt Thurmond to run against Truman in the 1948 Presidential election, he was never known to have uttered the vicious kind of language Byrd used to describe African Americans.

Seven years after Thurmond's filibuster, Byrd stood up and spoke on the Senate floor for fourteen straight hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Now Byrd might not have gone on the whole day like Thurmond did, but it was a filibuster against civil rights just the same.

Yet black civil rights leaders have been remarkably forgiving of Byrd. Upon learning of Byrd's death, Coston Davis, the President of the NAACP Branch in Charleston, said, "I realize that people make mistakes when they're young.… I think we've all done things we've regretted… these are one of the things I know he regretted."

Just like the time when Byrd twice uttered the phrase "white niggers" when he was a young man of 83 in a 2001 interview with the late Tony Snow on the Fox News Channel. He would, of course, later regret the remark and all was forgiven.

So why isn't the same forgiveness extended to Thurmond? He did hire an African American staffer named Tom Moss (the first Southern Senator to do so), supported the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and voted in favor of honoring the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, this would never be sufficient for liberal media elites. Following his 99th birthday, John Ibbitson of the Globe & Mail wrote of Thurmond, "Like a Nazi who changes into a suit, he began hiring blacks in his office, and supporting their causes."

The argument is that Robert Byrd repeatedly apologized for his involvement with the Klan and for his 1964 filibuster. Apparently, Thurmond's unpardonable sin was not having formally apologized for his past. Liberals like Timothy Noah of Slate can dismiss Thurmond's later outreach to African Americans as "shrewd accommodations" if they please. But what if Thurmond had made a formal apology? Would Noah, Ibbitson, or any other liberal have accepted it any more than they would have accepted his vote to establish Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? And here I thought actions spoke louder than words.

Yet when we come to the end of our lives we will be judged both by our words and deeds. Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond could both accurately be described as having been foes of integration. Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond, as the two longest serving members of the U.S. Senate, could also both accurately be described as having been respected voices of that body. Therefore, at the end of the day, Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond should be remembered for both bad and good.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.