Celeste Headlee, The Takeaway
Celeste Headlee, is a former co-host of The Takeaway.
As Robert Byrd passes, an era in race relations ends. Byrd started his political life as an Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan. In 1944, Byrd wrote the following in a letter to Senator Theodore Bilbo: "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." Byrd filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act for 14 hours.
Byrd changed his mind later in life. In some respects, that change seems to have been politically motivated; maybe it was only politics at first.In 1997, he had this advice for up-and-coming politicians: "Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena." That sounds like a coldly calculated assessment of political risk. Byrd made no secret of the decision he made to downplay his segregationist views in order to advance in Washington and move toward the mainstream.
But while the cosmetic changes were going on, something was also happening inside the mind of Robert Byrd. Last year he spoke to C-SPAN about why he would vote differently on the Civil Rights bill today. He said, "I thought, well now suppose I were black, and my grandson and I were on the highways in the mid-hours of the morning or midnight, and I stopped at a place to get that little grandson a glass of water or to have it go to the restroom, and there's a sign 'WHITES ONLY'... black people love their grandsons as much as I love mine, and that's not right." George Rutherford of the West Virginia NAACP told us he believed Byrd's metamorphosis was sincere, that his conversion was as true as Saul's. And while I admit that I never met the senator or knew him personally, I also tend to believe that he had a crisis of conscience over racism and grew to know the error of his ways.
It's telling that he used a small grandchild as a way to explain the basic inhumanity of segregation. I saw the power of children first-hand, as my father's parents were born in rural Texas and had all the prejudices you might expect from white Texans born in the early 20th century. But my father brought home a mixed-race bride, and his children were all part black. I have no idea what my grandparents thought when they first met my mother, when they first shook the brown hand of her father. But I know that they loved me unconditionally and without reserve, and it wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered they had started life with negative opinions about African-Americans. It may be cheesy and cliche, and suitable subject matter for an after-school special, but it nevertheless remains true: love can burn through prejudices and conquer racism without much effort.
I don't know who Senator Robert Byrd loved, who made him suddenly see racism as inhuman and cruel. But I do know that his conversion is a powerful and significant as any other story of civil rights in America. His passing is the ending of an era. With him goes a generation of Americans who were prejudiced because they grew up never seeing or knowing anyone with brown skin. With him goes the ugliness of KKK members on Capitol Hill, but also the beauty of transformation that comes with illumination.
Good night, Senator Byrd.You were all that was ugly and good about the South. I honor your service, and especially your willingness to change, and to admit that you were wrong. Sleep well.