Issues & Insights

While We’re Erasing Confederate Names, Let’s Remove Robert Byrd’s, Too

Recently, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pulled off a tricky legislative move to eliminate the names of Confederate soldiers from U.S. defense facilities (such as Fort Bragg in North Carolina, named for Confederate General Bragg). 

If this is a poker game, then I counter: remove the name of the Ku Klux Klan’s Exalted Cyclops Robert Byrd (former Senate Majority Leader, a lifelong Democrat, who retired from the Senate only ten years ago) from all federal buildings, roads, bridges, programs — everything. This is very personal for me.

When my mother was a child, the Klan came to the western Pennsylvania coal mining village where she lived and burned a cross there. Did Robert Byrd know any of the Klansmen who organized the cross-burning? As a high-ranking Klan organizer, he just might have … West Virginia (Byrd’s home) is not far away.

What is often overlooked is how the Klan hated Catholics and Jews as well as African-Americans. The cross-burning where my mom lived occurred because most of the miners were from Eastern Europe and were Catholics.

In 1963, I saw the Klan’s influence on our next-door neighbors, although as a little kid I didn’t realize it at the time.

When President Kennedy was assassinated, our neighbors’ children were on the sidewalk whooping with glee as JFK was now a dead Catholic, who had no business being president. Obviously, this idea came from their parents.

Lest you think we were living in tar-paper shack country, you need to know this happened in the D.C. suburbs of Rockville, Maryland.

My mother was outraged and kept me and my brother inside the house until JFK’s funeral was over. She continued to keep a careful watch over us until those neighbors moved away. 

Then in 1965 we were traveling in North Carolina in July to see my mom’s brother and his family who lived in New Bern, near the coast. The family car was a gold 4-door Ford Fairlane with black vinyl seats and no a/c. The heat was tolerable as long as dad kept his foot on the gas pedal and the windows were rolled down.

Then we had to pass through a town that had one of those infamous Klan billboards.

It was a good thing my dad was behind the wheel because my mom freaked out. She ordered us to roll up the windows and lock the doors. Dad had to drive exactly to the speed limit as long as we were in the city limits. My brother and I were drenched in sweat and very scared.

Naturally, we took a different route on the trip home.

My message to Sen. Warren is: no Confederate soldier ever terrorized my family. They were dead and in the ground in the 19th century. The Klan, however, did have an impact on people, including me, not so very long ago.

Robert Byrd, the Exalted Cyclops, is a symbol of the Klan’s power (it helped him win his House and Senate seats), and his name festoons a long list of federally-funded buildings and infrastructure works.

And there’s more. We have the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at Shepard University in West Virginia. The Center’s website has a statement supporting Black Lives Matter, but doesn’t mention the need for a name change. Ironic, no?

However, at Marshall University, there’s a very popular petition drive to remove Byrd’s name from numerous campus buildings such as the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Rural Health. The rationale is sound: Byrd’s Klansman history does nothing to help bolster Marshall’s reputation.

Finally, while Warren is on the warpath to eradicate Confederate names from military installations, she should take a hard look at her own party’s history, particularly its relationship with the Klan. It’s time to remove Byrd’s name from all those buildings, bridges, and programs in West Virginia. It’s the morally right thing to do, for my Mother, and every other person who was terrorized by the Klan.

Joanne Butler is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School, where she received a fellowship grant. She was a trade analyst at the U.S. Trade Representative’s office in the George H.W. Bush administration. She also served as a professional staff member to the House Ways and Means Committee. Later, in the George W. Bush administration, she was a senior adviser/speechwriter for the assistant secretary overseeing wage and hour matters.

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14 comments

  • The longer this goes, the more true history of the Democrat party comes to light. Time to look into LBJ, too. Someone might even want to check some of the CBC, to see if any of their ancestors were involved in the slave trade, like Kamala Harris ‘s.

  • “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.”
    — Robert C. Byrd (democrat), in a letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), 1944
    “Race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds” Tells you what Sen Byrd thought about blacks.”

    Lying, cheating, crooked Hillary Clinton and her raping husband were good friends of Robert Byrd.

    • Senator Robert Bryd (The Exalted Dragon) KKK member at his funeral many came to speak glowingly of such a great man, Obama, Biden, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and many many more. In our cancel culture why aren’t these people being Cancelled? Bryds apology in 1997 said he would encourage young people to get into politics but to avoid the KKK. Yep that was certainly a clear cut repudiation of the the KKK.

  • Well, at least, Byrd’s racism was outside the Senate. J. William Fulbright used his senate stage to: vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, filibuster the Voting Rights Act of 1965, attempt legislation that would allow soldiers, airman and sailors to decide if they would serve in an integrated unit, stop integration of schools (he signed the Southern Manifesto declaring his opposition to school integration after the Brown vs. Topeka decision of 1954), but other than that he was just fine, BECAUSE he was a Democrat.

  • One West Virginia college has done just that. “CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A private college in West Virginia said Wednesday it is removing the name of the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd from its health center, saying his name had caused “divisiveness and pain” without explicitly noting his complicated past on racial matters.

    Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s but subsequently denounced the organization. He served in the Senate for 51 years and died in 2010 at age 92.

    Bethany College President Tamara Rodenberg said on the school’s website that Byrd’s name will be removed from the college’s Robert C. Byrd Health Center.”

    At least this is a start – hopefully it will bring a “landslide”.

  • Joanne, great article. You may want to add Harvard’s sister school YALE, which was named for Elihu Yale, who owned and traded in slaves.

  • My grandmother was Slovak from Clarksburg. She told the stories about the Klan burning crosses in the neighbor. Other than the little Native American blood 7/8ths of my family weren’t even here during slavery.

  • My late brother used to say that if ever we have a Trans-Lunar Highway, the on-ramp will be in Wheeling, W. Va. and will be crowned with the glorious name of Robert Byrd. I have rarely heard in decades what we said in my boyhood — born before Pearl Harbor — that KKK viewed as enemies Koons, KIkes and Katholiks and as Catholics with close Jewish friends and no animus against Blacks, we took that quite personally and viewed them as an enemy. I suppose one could be censured or fired for even remembering that today.

  • Instead of removing Byrd and everything else that’s offensive to someone, and everything is offensive to somebody somehow, how about we just remove cancel culture altogether? Stop tearing down our history, stop the mob rule bs and let’s get back to being Americans – you know like we were before Obama & Pelosi took identity politics to new heights and before TDS infected the brains of every liberal on the planet (you have to lose some elections sometimes, crybabies, get over it and try again in 4 years). In the real world, as opposed to the world defined by the racist, race baiting, anti-American, fake news media, black and white people, people of all races for that matter, get along just fine for the most part. The real race on race crime rates prove that.

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