Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.), once a virulent segregationist and proud member of the KKK who later earned the NAACP’s highest legislative rating, is now the longest-serving member of Congress in history.
On Wednesday, the 92-year-old senator surpassed Carl T. Hayden, the Arizona Democrat who served a total of 20,773 days in the U.S. House and Senate. Byrd, who spent six years in the House and 51 years in the Senate, thanked the people of his state for granting him such longevity in Congress.
In a statement, he said that his only regret is that Erma, his wife who passed away three years ago, was not there to witness his milestone.
"I know that she is looking down from the heavens smiling at me and saying congratulations my dear Robert – but don't let it go to your head," he said.
Byrd, who is known for his deft navigation of the Senate’s arcane parliamentary procedures, has apologized profusely over the years for his passionately racist views during his early life.
In a letter he wrote to Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo in 1944, Byrd vowed that he would “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,” according to Wikipedia. Two years later, the now-26-year-old wrote to the Grand Wizard stating, "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation."
Even though he had withdrawn his membership in the Klan by the 1960s, he joined with other southern and border state Democrats to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He personally filibustered the bill for 14 hours. Even though the filibuster lasted 83 days, both parties overwhelmingly passed the Act, and President Johnson signed it into law.
Byrd is the only U.S. senator to have voted against the confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and that of Clarence Thomas, the only two African Americans in history to sit on the high court.
But in one of many examples of his racial transformation, Byrd issued a resounding endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) over Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in the last presidential campaign. "Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support." Obama, he said, was "a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq."
In October 2008, Byrd predicted that race would play no role in Obama’s chances in his state. "Those days are gone. Gone!" he snapped. However, he would go on to lose West Virginia by 13 percent – but still win the presidential election.