Robert Byrd: The Longest-Serving Senator
June 30, 2010
Robert Carlyle Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. on November 20, 1917 in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Upon his mother Ada Mae’s death in the 1918 Flu Pandemic, his father Cornelius Calvin Sale Sr. gave custody of Byrd to his aunt and uncle, Titus and Vlurma Byrd. The couple adopted him, renamed him, and raised him West Virginia, a state that he would later represent in the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate.
A smart young man, Byrd was valedictorian at his high school and attended Beckley College, Concord College, Morris Harvey College, and Marshall College. At the age of 19, he married his high school sweetheart, Emra Ora James, the daughter of a coal miner. During World War II, he worked as a gas station attendant, a grocery store clerk, a shipyard welder and a butcher. It wasn’t until 1946 that he went into politics.
From 1947 to 1950, Byrd represented Raleigh County, West Virginia in the state’s House of Delegates. He was then elected to the West Virginia Senate, where we served from 1951 to 1952. During this time, he began studying law at night but would not receive his law degree until over a decade later, from American University’s Washington College of Law. He received his undergraduate degree in 1994 from Marshall University.
In 1952, Byrd was elected to the United States House of Representatives, where he represented West Virginia’s 6th Congressional District. He served from 1953 to 1959, when he was elected to the United States Senate. He served eight terms in the Senate and was elected for a ninth, still a member until the day he died. This made him the longest-running senator in our country’s history. During those 56 years, Byrd served on the Committee on Appropriations on various Subcommittees, Committee on Armed Services, Committee on the Budget, and the Committee on Rules and Administration.
His lengthy history in American politics and even his life before is not without controversy. At the age of 24, Byrd was high-ranking officer in the Ku Klux Klan, something he has apologized for many times over the years. In 2005, he said, “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times … and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again. I can’t erase what happened.”
For fourteen hours, Byrd managed to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Byrd went on to vote for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and told the Washington Post in an interview that his Baptist church membership was responsible for the change of his views but his critics insisted the changes were more about politics than anything.
Despite the controversy, Byrd went on to become a leader in the Senate. From 1967 to 1971, he was senate majority whip and from 1977 to 1989, he became the leader of the Senate Democrats, serving as the senate majority/minority leader. He was known for his ability to guide federal dollars to West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the nation, something for which he was both criticized and praised. He was also known for his knowledge of parliamentary procedure, which he often used to his advantage. Byrd served as President pro tempore four times throughout the later years of his career, meaning he was fourth in line to become President at the time of his death.
Byrd never voted strictly down party lines when it came to a number of subject matters. He agreed with the impeachment brought against President Bill Clinton, he was against same-sex marriage, and he supported President George W. Bush’s choices of Samuel Alito and John Roberts for the Supreme Court. But like many democrats, Byrd was pro-choice, opposed to tax cuts, and opposed to overhauling the social security system in favor of private accounts.
Something many people didn’t know about Byrd is that he was an avid fiddle player for as long as his hands would allow. he began playing in various square dance bands in his teens and upon becoming a senator, Byrd used his musical abilities to win votes. In 1978, he recorded an album called “U.S. Senator Robert Byrd: Mountain Fiddler,” which features songs such as “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” He has performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the Kennedy Center and on the show “Hee Haw.”
Byrd’s health began to deteriorate in 2008, when he was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center upon falling in his home. The next two years would see the late Senator suffering from a number of minor health problems. On June 27, 2010, Byrd was admitted to Ionova Fairfax Hospital in FairFax County, Virginia for what was thought to be heatstroke and dehydration. The illness turned out to be other medical issues and Senator Byrd died at 3:00 AM on June 28, 2010.
President Barack Obama issued the following statement upon learning of his death,
“His profound passion for that body and its role and responsibilities was as evident behind closed doors as it was in the stemwinders he peppered with history. He held the deepest respect of members of both parties, and he was generous with his time and advice, something I appreciated greatly as a young senator.”
Byrd’s was preceded in death by his wife Erma, who died at the age of 88 in 2006. The couple had two children, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore, six children and six great-grandchildren.