One Saturday in the 1920s, a small boy named Robert Byrd stood at a second-floor window in Matoaka, W.Va., and watched wide-eyed as a parade of men, including his adoptive father, marched past in white robes, white hoods and white masks. They were local members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Byrd never forgot that spectacle. Growing up, he heard that the Klan defended the American way of life against the godless racemixers and communists, and that its members included many of the “best” people—doctors, lawyers, preachers. In late 1941 or early 1942, Byrd—then a young butcher in Crab Orchard, W.Va.—wrote a letter to Dr. Samuel Green of Atlanta, Ga., the Klan’s “Imperial Wizard.” Byrd begged the Wizard to make him a Klansman.
“Sometime later, I received a letter from Mr. Joel L. Baskin,” Byrd remembered years afterwards. “Mr. Baskin’s letterhead, as I recall, bore the title ‘Grand Dragon of the Realm of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.’ This seemed most impressive. The Baskin letter indicated that he would come to Crab Orchard whenever I had signed up 150 applicants, at which time he would officially organize a Klan chapter. The joining fee was ten dollars, as I recall, and the price of a robe and hood was three dollars.”
Byrd promptly mailed in his 10 bucks, and began recruiting his neighbors into the Klan. He proved to be an excellent organizer, which didn’t surprise those who knew him as a whip-smart and charming young man. Born Cornelius C. Sale in 1917, he was a year old when his mother died in the 1918 influenza epidemic. His aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd, adopted him and renamed him Robert Carlyle Byrd. Valedictorian of his high school class, he married at 19, fathered two daughters and took a job tending the meat counter at the local Carolina Supermarket, where he met nearly everybody in Raleigh County. He signed up 150 prospective Klansmen in no time and wrote back to Baskin, inviting him to come to Crab Orchard and swear them all in as knights of the “Invisible Empire.”
The Grand Dragon drove to Crab Orchard one Saturday in 1942 to meet his hotshot new organizer and preside over the solemn initiation ceremony. “He was well dressed, a man apparently in his late fifties to early sixties, an active churchman,” Byrd recalled. “I was impressed by his demeanor and bearing, and he was impressed by my enthusiasm and by the swiftness with which I had procured the applications and filing fees of 150 men.”
Byrd’s house was too small to fit 150 knights, so he arranged to hold the ceremony at the home of C.M. “Clyde” Goodwin, a former law enforcement officer. The Klansmen gathered in Goodwin’s basement, where Baskin officially organized the local chapter or “Klavern” and administered the Klan oath. Then the Grand Dragon supervised the election of local officers. When he called for nominations for “Exalted Cyclops,” the highest-ranking official in the Klavern, Byrd was nominated and quickly elected by unanimous vote.
After the meeting, Baskin returned to Byrd’s house, where the Grand Dragon suggested to the Exalted Cyclops that perhaps he ought to try his hand at politics.
“You have a talent for leadership, Bob,” Baskin said. “That was very evident from the way those men tonight wanted you as their leader. They wanted no one else. The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation.”
Baskin’s encouragement electrified Byrd. “Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” he wrote 60 years later. “Somebody important had recognized my abilities. I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never struck me. But strike me that night, it did. It was the appealing challenge I had been looking for.”
Baskin proved to be a savvy judge of political talent. The man he anointed Exalted Cyclops was later elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates, the West Virginia Senate, the United States House of Representatives and—nine times—to the United States Senate. In 60 years in politics, Robert C. Byrd never lost an election. By the time he died in office in 2010, at the age of 92, Byrd had become the longest-serving senator in history and the longest-serving member in the history of the Congress.
Funny how history happens: A few encouraging words from the Grand Dragon of America’s most infamous hate group inspired an obscure backwoods butcher to launch what turned out to be the longest career in congressional history.
When Byrd first ran for Congress in 1952, his Klan connection nearly proved to be his downfall. Before the Democratic primary, his opponents raised the Klan issue and Byrd admitted he’d been a Klansman “from mid-1942 to early 1943” before quitting forever. But after he won the primary, his Republican opponent produced a letter that Byrd had written to the Klan’s Imperial Wizard in 1946, long after he claimed he’d quit: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”
Caught in a lie, Byrd was urged by Democratic officials, including the governor, to quit the race. He refused, won the election and began a career in Congress that would last 57 years. During the first dozen years, the former Klansman was, unsurprisingly, a vociferous opponent of civil rights. In 1964, he delivered a 14-hour filibuster against the Civil Rights Act that outlawed segregation. In 1965, he voted against the Voting Rights Act designed to ensure that black Americans could vote.
But as he aged, Byrd gradually evolved into a mainstream liberal Democrat. In 1977, Senate Democrats elected him majority leader. In 1989, he became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and used that position to pump billions of dollars into West Virginia, which was poor and needed the money. By the new millennium, he’d become a beloved, white-haired elder statesman famous for quoting Shakespeare and Cicero from memory, even as his hands shook with palsy. In 2003, Byrd—who had supported the Vietnam War right to the bitter end—shocked his colleagues by repeatedly rising in the Senate to denounce President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq. “This war,” he said, “is not necessary.”
In his memoir, published in 2005, Byrd struggled to explain his Klan membership, attributing it to “very bad judgment, due to immaturity and a lack of seasoned reasoning.” He admitted that he grew up sharing the “fears and prejudices” of his racist upbringing, but said he never hated his black neighbors. He swore that his Klan group never engaged in any acts of violence, and nobody has disputed that assertion.
“Our only venture outside the ‘Klavern’ meeting place was when, on one occasion, a few of our members and I took a wreath of flowers—in the shape of a cross—to the home where one of our deceased members was lying in state before the burial,” Byrd wrote. “He had killed, and was killed by, another man in a pistol duel.”
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.