US Senator Robert Byrd Dies

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

US Senator Robert Byrd Dies

Democratic senator from West Virgina and longest-serving member of US Congress dies, aged 92

by
Mark Tran and Agencies

Senator Robert Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan before becoming an advocate of civil rights. (Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Senator Robert Byrd, the longest-serving member ever of the US Congress, has died at the age of 92, a spokesman said today.

The
Democratic senator from West Virgina, who was a member of the Ku Klux
Klan before becoming a civil rights advocate, died peacefully at Inova
Fairfax hospital outside Washington, Jesse Jacobs said.

Byrd was
an influential politician under a dozen presidents and his death, which
follows that of Edward Kennedy in August, means the Senate has lost two
of its most illustrious figures.

"I love to serve. I love the
Senate. If I could live another 100 years, I'd like to continue in the
Senate," Byrd said in a 2006 interview with Reuters.

In a notable
moment of his career, Byrd spoke eloquently against the Iraq war, when
so many of his colleagues were cowed into submission by the Bush
administration. He also warned against a build-up of US troops in
Afghanistan.

Byrd's death is not expected to change the Democrats'
majority in the Senate. The West Virginia governor, Joe Manchin, a
Democrat, is expected to appoint a Democrat to serve the remainder of
Byrd's six-year term, which expires in 2012.

Byrd was first
elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, serving six years
there before moving to the Senate. In his early campaigns the
self-described "hillbilly" used his musical skills as a bluegrass
fiddler to help draw big and enthusiastic crowds.

His politics shifted considerably over the years, as he moved away from his hard-right origins.

"When
I got here, I was to the right of Barry Goldwater," Byrd told Reuters,
referring to a conservative Republican senator and failed 1964
presidential candidate. "I moved more to the centre."

In the
early 1940s, before being elected to Congress, Byrd belonged to the Ku
Klux Klan, a membership that he attributed to youthful indiscretion.

"It
has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught
me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life,
career and reputation," Byrd wrote in a 1987 memoir, Robert C Byrd:
Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.

In Congress, Byrd denounced
the civil rights leader Martin Luther King as a "self-seeking rabble
rouser", before turning into a leading backer of civil rights.

Of
the record-setting 18,500-plus Senate votes Byrd cast, he said his
biggest regret was opposing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a landmark law
that brought down barriers for black Americans.

He said his views
changed most dramatically after his teenage grandson was killed in a
1982 traffic accident. "The death of my grandson caused me to stop and
think," Byrd said. "I came to realise that black people love their
children as much as I do mine."

Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin
Sale Jr on 20 November 20 1917 in North Carolina and was sent to live
with relatives in West Virginia after his mother died in the 1918 flu
pandemic. His new family renamed him and Byrd grew up desperately poor
in the West Virginia coal fields. Unable to afford college, he worked
as a meat cutter during the Great Depression and as a welder building
ships during the second world war. Byrd married his high school
sweetheart, Erma Ora James, in 1936. They had two daughters and six
grandchildren.

"For two hillbillies – that is what we are, two
hillbillies – from West Virginia, it has been an exciting and wild
ride," Byrd said in a Senate speech marking their 65th anniversary. She
died in March 2006.

Byrd set the record for congressional longevity last November, eclipsing the mark held by the late Carl Hayden.

On
that day, Byrd said: "My only regret is that my beloved wife, companion
and confidante, my dear Erma, is not here with me. 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.'"

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