In the immediate aftermath of the death of Senator Robert Byrd, the accusation was launched that liberals, including me, would not give Byrd’s life the scrutiny of, let’s say a Strom Thurmond. The notion was that a Democrat with a history of bigotry would get a sanitized obituary whereas a Republican would not. This lead me to do a very brief investigation into each man’s life story. With time at a premium, I had to rely on the most basic source of information about both men, namely Wikipedia. I understand this does not qualify for academic rigor but it is the best I can do for the time being.
It is simply impossible to know what really lies within a man’s heart and mind. We can only judge men by their words and their actions, mostly their actions. Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd present troubling studies in complexity. There were times in their lives when they said the most vile things imaginable. There were times in their lives that demonstrated moderation.
Both Thurmond and Byrd started out as strident segregationists. Thurmond did a better job of hiding this philosophy behind the cloak of “state’s rights”. In other words, the government cannot tell a state how to conduct its business and if a state wanted to keep blacks separate from whites, then by golly they had the right to do that. To his dying day, Thurmond was unapologetic about his politics using the state’s rights claim as his reasoning. However early quotes from these men show an obvious disdain for blacks:
In his 1948 campaign for President, Thurmond said, “I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
Similarly in 1944, while a leader of his local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, Byrd wrote, “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.”
In 1957, Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of that year for more than 24 hours. In 1964, Byrd filibustered for 14 hours against that year’s Civil Rights legislation.
However, both men had some redeeming episodes in their lives. Strom Thurmond won praise from the NAACP and the ACLU in the 1940’s as Governor of South Carolina when he actively pursued justice for the lynching of a black man. Late in his career he supported the Voting Rights Act and making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday. Robert Byrd, unlike Thurmond, stayed with the Democratic party as it became more progressive and civil rights oriented, even though he remained a conservative Democrat through the 1960’s. In 2004, the NAACP awarded Byrd with a 100% approval rating based on legislation for which he advocated.
With their political lives a mixed bag, we could look to their personal lives for more insight. Again, all we get is complexity. Strom Thurmond never renounced his segregationist views. He never apologized for any of his political platforms. He remained sure that he was right in defending state’s rights in keeping with the social norms of the day. In contrast, Byrd apologized, especially for his involvement with the KKK. In 2005 he said, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.” Yet Byrd opposed the nominations of both Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, the former for his integrationist views and the latter for his arrogance. However in 1982, Byrd came to a racial epiphany of sorts when his teenage grandson died and it dawned on him that black people love their children as much as whites do. A bit troubling that it took Byrd until 1982 to fully figure that out.
Upon Thurmond’s death, we learned that he didn’t dislike all black people. He particularly liked a black maid with whom he had a “secret love child” in 1925. To his credit, he financially supported his daughter for the rest of his life. To his discredit, he never publicly acknowledged her. His daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams claimed that the secret was kept by mutual agreement and the financial assistance given to her was not hush money. What gives more insight into the man’s heart, the fact that he supported his daughter or the fact that he hid her?
I think anyone can objectively say that Robert Byrd made the better show of seeking redemption than did his colleague Strom Thurmond. How much of this show was for political expediency in a changing social climate, we can never know. It could be argued that Thurmond had more integrity, not changing his views with the popular winds of the day. Compounding the difficulty of analyzing these two men is the fact that all politicians are liars. So it is hard to discern how much the desire to get reelected shaped these men’s professed views.
When we try to arrive at a bottom line for Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd, one Republican, one Democrat, it is best to think about what we might tell our own children. The lesson for our children, as I see it, is that bigotry is a terrible stain that years of good deeds and apologies cannot completely erase. Our only window into these men’s souls were their words and actions and we know for certain that at one time each of them evidenced an illogical hatred for those different from them. Whenever we are tempted to discriminate against another for purely superficial reasons, we should stop and think about whether we want our obituaries to bear the stains of those of Thurmond and Byrd.