Byrds of a Feather Flock Together: How Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama learned to accommodate white supremacy under the tutelage of Robert C. Byrd
In West Virginia’s State Capitol rotunda, there is an immense bronze monstrosity that commemorates the massive ego of its favorite son, Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd Jr, the longest serving U.S. Senator in American history. It is a monument to the incredible ignorance and servility of West Virginia’s electorate and its silent ostentation makes a cruel mockery of the state’s history of opposition to slavery and the suffering of its ever-present poor and working class majority.
Senator Byrd’s principled opposition to the war in Iraq brought the Senate’s oldest war-horse some much needed prominence and acclaim as he trudged toward his crusade for the record books: a ninth six year term. The Senator likes round numbers and at the conclusion of the current term, Byrd will have served in Congress for 60 years, shattering all previous records for congressional service.
An orator of some heft, the Napoleonic Byrd routinely regales the Senate with perorations about the Senate of ancient Rome, U.S. Senate history, and mom and apple pie. Behind those grandfatherly pontifications is something sinister, something dark, and it is the Senator’s own history of white supremacist advocacy as a member of the Ku Klux Klan and his record of opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Eric Pianin of the Washington Post picks up the story, “In the early 1940’s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the “Grand Dragon” for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W. Va., to officially organize the chapter.”
“As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd’s organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. ‘The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation,’ Baskin said.”
With that chilling advice, Byrd embarked upon his legendary political career, which saw service in both houses of the West Virginia legislature and both houses of congress. Along the way, he was attacked for his Klan associations, which he later “disavowed,” until the next election. The friendships he made and the alliances built on a foundation of hate, lasted well into the second decade of his political career and they greased his path until he finally ran the U.S. Senate as its Majority Leader.
A 1978 Time Magazine profile of Senator Byrd reads, “An archconservative, Byrd was regarded by many as a lightweight hanger-on to the influential group of Southern conservatives led by Georgia’s Richard Russell. What no one realized was that Byrd was already planning his move to gain power in the Senate. His strategy: to emulate Russell’s mastery of the Senate’s rules. ‘Senator Russell’-out of reverence, Byrd always called him that-also advised him to study the book of precedents. Byrd did, religiously, just as he had earlier pored over his butcher’s manual”
“…Loyal to the Southern wing, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” Pianin of the Washington Post continued, “Byrd filibustered the bill (the Civil Rights Act of 1964) for more than 14 hours as he argued that it abrogated principles of federalism. He criticized most anti-poverty programs except for food stamps. And in 1967, he voted against the nomination of Thurgood Marshall, the first black appointed to the Supreme Court.”
The illumination of Byrd’s opposition to the Marshall Nomination and what that reveals about Hillary and Barack’s craven cultivation of a segregationist fossil is what I wish to focus on.
Byrd was the final member to address the Senate and blustered “I have reached the conclusion, only last evening, that I shall vote against Mr. Marshall’s confirmation. I shall vote against his confirmation realizing that, from a purely political standpoint, my vote will probably not be a good vote. Mine being a political career, it is only natural that I cannot be averse to political considerations in many of the decisions which I am called upon to make. Nevertheless, I feel that political considerations must be subordinated to my strong convictions in matters, which will leave a lasting imprint upon the country, which the next generation will inherent from our hands.”
“There are those critics who may say that my vote against Mr. Marshall is a “racist vote.” There are those who may say my vote indicates that I am anti-Negro. “… Mr. President, the truth of the matter is that I would like to vote for Mr. Marshall, and I am frank to say that I would like to vote for him particularly because he is a Negro. Yet, I consider it my duty as a Senator, under the Constitution, not to let Mr. Marshall’s race influence my decision. Having reached the definite conclusion that were Mr. Marshall white, I would vote against him. I cannot, therefore, let the fact that he is a Negro influence me to vote for him when I would not do so otherwise.”
“What is the basis for my decision to vote against Mr. Marshall’s confirmation?” Byrd disingenuously raised the specter of black crime and the liberalization of Supreme Court rulings. He thundered, “I have repeatedly spoken out against Supreme Court decisions which have placed shackles upon the police and which have made increasingly difficult the problem of law enforcement. …I do not believe that I can be justified in criticizing the U.S. Supreme Court for decisions which favor the criminal if I, by my own actions, fail to take a stand against the appointment of any individual to that Court whose past record in the legal profession and as a jurist point unmistakably, in my judgment, to the likelihood that the nominee will add to an already dangerously imbalanced High Tribunal.”
Thurgood Marshall’s remarkable career is a powerful testimony to the existence of God because his hand is so clearly visible in the miracles of advocacy Marshall routinely pulled off in hostile southern courtrooms on behalf of African American defendants. Noted for his groundbreaking and successful strategy of challenging segregation, his work on behalf of black defendants in criminal cases is often overlooked.
Marshall was the senior member of a triumvirate of black generals leading the charge against segregation and discrimination in this society. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell led the battle in Congress, Martin Luther King Jr. fought the struggle in the streets and Thurgood led the protracted struggle against discrimination in the civil and criminal courts of the country. The only thing standing between some criminal defendants and the electric chair, he rode into sleepy southern locales on his white horse, at great personal risk to himself, and fought with the whole armor of God for his clients and won more often than not.
In 1940, after seven years of private practice, Marshall won his first case in the U.S. Supreme Court. During the fifties, King asked for Marshall’s help during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. As head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Marshall was glad to oblige. King underscored the thrust of Marshall’s trial advocacy and the philosophy behind the protests “One thing the gradualists don’t seem to understand: We are not trying to make people love us when we go to court; we are trying to keep them from killing us.”
Alabama was ground zero in the fight for civil rights by 1955. Robert J. Norrell, author of “Law In A White Man’s Democracy,” for the Cumberland Law Review, recounts the racist history of Alabama’s Judiciary and the fight against it for equality. Norrell wrote, “Electoral forms in Alabama created from 1874 onward were intended primarily to ensure white political supremacy. Despite divisions among whites, the first concern of most white politicians after Reconstruction was to maintain white dominance and to undermine any black influence. … In the new century, much of the effort to maintain white supremacy was focused on the criminal justice system in Alabama. The courts helped to maintain an unfree labor system and discriminatory application of law.
In 1960, Marshall had moved the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to back up the civil rights movement almost exclusively and the ramifications were profound for the movement. Again, Norrell, “By 1961, racial feelings had surged to new heights as a result of black challenges to segregation. In the spring of 1960, the sit-in movement protested lunch-counter segregation in most Alabama cities. In May 1961, the ‘freedom-riders’ came to Alabama, and the ensuing violence in Anniston, Birmingham, and Montgomery took racial tensions even higher. A sense of siege pervaded the feelings of many white Alabamians, and predictions of a coming race war were commonplace.”
Marshall waded in again personally in 1961 on behalf of Alabamian Charles Clarence Hamilton, a black defendant convicted and sentenced to death for raping a white woman. Thurgood got the conviction reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court for a due-process violation. Far from admiring Marshall’s legal acumen as he had done in the past by voting to confirm him to the U.S. Court of Appeals and as Solicitor General; Byrd turned on a dime and reviled it. Confirmed by a vote of 69-11, Byrd’s Machiavellian grandstanding on the nomination of Thurgood Marshall had an audience of one: Senator Richard Russell of Georgia. He was the one man with the power to punch his ticket and smooth the glide path to Senate leadership.
His efforts paid off handsomely. Pianin of the Washington Post wrote, “…As a rising member of the leadership, Byrd paid close attention to minor legislative details that made life easier for other senators, always showing elaborate courtesy, and wrote thank you notes on the slightest pretext. In 1971, he challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy for the majority whip post and unseated him, after securing the death-bed proxy of the legendary Sen. Richard B. Russell D-Ga …the architect of the southern filibuster against civil rights legislation.”
After Senator Russell’s death, Byrd sponsored legislation to honor his segregationist legacy by naming the first Senate Office Building in his honor and he paid tribute to him in a 1988 address on the Senate Floor in which he reminisced at Russell’s final resting place, “As I stood by his graveside there beneath the a soft southern sky, my thoughts ran backward across the years we had served together and to the many times when I had sought his sage counsel and advice. I thought of the example that he had set, as a senator who had truly revered the Senate, and of the impact of his life upon my own. Here, I thought, was a senator who would have graced the Senate well in any era, at any period, in the broad sweep of its two hundred-year history. Richard Russell was someone who, more than anyone else I have ever met, should have been President of the United States.”
A bitter segregationist should have been President of the United States-yeah, right.
Not content to oppose the form and substance of equality, Byrd also opposed its number one spokesperson and sought to install Supreme Court Justices inimical to civil rights. The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s student run newspaper, said in a January 11, 1977 article, “He once condemned the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a ‘self seeking rabble rouser,’ suggesting later that the slain civil rights leader had incited the riots that broke out in the wake of his assassination. Byrd was so opposed to the progressive decisions of the Warren Court that he broke ranks with his colleagues in supporting President Nixon’s ill-fated nominees for the Supreme Court, W. Clement Haynsworth and G. Harrold Carswell.”
In 1977, Senator Byrd defeated former Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a passionate civil rights advocate and leader of the forces pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for Senate Majority Leader. Again, the Harvard Crimson, “Surprisingly, Byrd received strong support in his campaign for the post not only from conservative Southern Democrats, but from liberals who might more naturally have been expected to support Byrd’s challenger, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey D-Minn. In fact, so widespread was the liberal defection to Byrd that Humphrey, recognizing he had no chance of winning, withdrew.”
This is the person to whom Hillary and Barack turned to school them in navigating the corridors of senate power. They turned to a former Klansman, segregationist, and archconservative.
In the November 2006 issue of the Atlantic, staff writer Joshua Green wrote of Hillary Clinton, “Before she was even sworn in, she went to pay obeisance to the very man who had all but driven a stake through her health-care plan, Senator Robert C. Byrd…’I was not exactly a disciple,’ Byrd told me. ‘I thought she would play upon her having been a president’s wife and expect to have a lot of favors done, a lot of bending and bowing.’ He added huffily, ‘That didn’t concur with my impressions of what a senator should be.’
“Instead, Clinton asked Byrd for advice on being a good senator, and got a primer on how to comport herself. Afterward, she announced her intention to heed Byrd’s advice: ‘Be a workhorse, not a show horse.’…The meeting with Byrd accomplished two things: it sent a public signal about how Clinton planned conduct herself in her new job, and it sent a private signal to Byrd that she wanted to apprentice herself to him. A senate staffer told me that Clinton also asked Byrd at the meeting if he would lead a series of classes for the freshmen, which she would arrange, on his specialty of parliamentary rules and procedures. Byrd delightedly agreed. For more than a year, groups of Senators large and small filed through Byrd’s ornate office in the Capitol for their lessons. There was no question who was the star pupil.”
Not to be outdone, Senator Obama wrote in the bestselling Audacity of Hope, “…among Senate Democrats at least, my meetings would end with one consistent recommendation: As soon as possible, they said, I should schedule a meeting with Senator Byrd-not only as a matter of senatorial courtesy, but also because Senator Byrd’s position on the Appropriations Committee and general stature gave him considerable clout.”
“…We spoke about the Senate’s past, the Presidents he had known, the bills he had managed. He told me I would do well in the Senate but that I shouldn’t be in too much of a rush-so many senators today become fixated on the White House, not understanding that in the constitutional design it was the Senate that was supreme, the heart and soul of the republic.”
“…Listening to Senator Byrd speak, I felt with full force all the essential contradictions of me in this new place, with its marble busts, its arcane traditions, its memories and its ghosts. I pondered the fact that, according to his own autobiography, Senator Byrd had received his first taste of leadership in his early twenties, as a member of the Raleigh County Ku Klux Klan…I thought about how he had joined other giants of the Senate, like J. William Fulbright of Arkansas and Richard Russell of Georgia, in Southern resistance to civil rights legislation…I wondered if it should matter.”
Apparently, in Obamaworld and Hillaryland, it really doesn’t matter. All is forgiven. Senator Obama contemplated the contradictions so deeply that he campaigned for Senator Byrd’s 2006 re-election and raised $634,000 towards his re-election bid through the political action committee, MoveOn.org. The audacity of Obama’s genuflection to Byrd, and his accommodation of white supremacy meant that like Hillary, he also had internalized his power tutorial well.
I should hope that the irony of a woman and an African American beating a path to the door of a former segregationist whose “reverence” for the constitution is evidenced by his carrying around a copy of it in his pocket for the entirety of his 6 decades of service in congress is not lost on anyone. Byrd has brandished his little copy of the constitution on the Senate floor for decades but has consistently failed to defend the constitutional rights of African Americans.
The same could be said of both Hillary and Barack. The constitutional guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment is fungible in the Clinton household. As a young law professor demonstrating an idealistic commitment to justice, Hillary Clinton wrote a brief that freed a retarded inmate from death row. It was a commitment that was to be sacrificed in order to embrace the calculated and bloodless political expediency that propelled the Clintons to Washington.
In her husband’s final term as governor, as he campaigned for President, she stood mute as he allowed the execution of a brain damaged black man, Ricky Ray Rector, who killed a police officer and then lobotomized himself with a gun shot to the head.
Christopher Hitchens described the craven act brutally, “Executed by Clinton to draw attention from the Gennifer Flowers flap (about which he also lied) Rector outdoes Willie Horton by every definition of racist grandstanding.” Rector was so mentally impaired that “Rector’s prison guards called him “the Chickman” because he thought the guards were throwing alligators and chickens into his cell. He would grip the bars and jump up and down like an ape. On the night of his execution, Rector saved the slice of pecan pie to be eaten before bedtime, not realizing his death would come first. He also told his attorney that he would like to vote for Clinton in the fall,” wrote Alexander Nguyen of the American Prospect.
Rector was a man that Thurgood Marshall, then in his final term as a justice, would have ruled to spare had the Court chosen to hear his last appeal. Marshall wrote in his dissent, “Ultimately, then, the common law conception of incompetence embodies the principle that it is inhumane to put a man to death when he has been rendered incapable of appealing to the mercy of the society that has condemned him.” The Clintons respected Marshall’s point of view so thoroughly that they fast-tracked executions when Bill signed the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which allows the death penalty for an additional 60 crimes and short circuits death row appeals based on due process violations and actual innocence.
In Chicago, a twenty-year reign of racist terror by Southside Chicago Cops was summarily ignored by Barack Obama and his political patron, Mayor Rich Daley. From the website of the University of Chicago Police Torture Archive, “Between the years of 1972 and 1991, approximately  African American Men and women were arrested and tortured at the hands of former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge and officers under his command at Area 2 police headquarters. Some of these victims were as young as thirteen years old. Various court cases have established that the methods of torture used in the interrogation of suspects included electric shock to the ears and genitalia, mock executions, suffocation, and burning. While Jon Burge was ultimately fired by the Chicago Police Department, not a single perpetrator of the tortures has ever been criminally prosecuted.” Fourteen of those tortured were sent to death row.
Throughout almost the entire period of racist terror, either the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, or his son, Richard M. Daley, was in a position of power to stop these human rights violations and neither did anything. Knowing all of this, Barack Obama endorsed the Mayor’s re-election bid for a sixth term and accepted the Mayor’s endorsement for President while simultaneously grandstanding on the Senate floor against the torture of foreign terrorism suspects. Barack Obama, like Hillary, defecated on the legacy of Thurgood Marshall and showed to all the world that Byrds of a feather do indeed flock together to accommodate white supremacy.