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.