Robert Carlyle Byrd (born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr.; November 20, 1917 – June 28, 2010) was a United States Senator from West Virginia. A member of the Democratic Party, Byrd served as a U.S. Representative from 1953 until 1959 and as a U.S. Senator from 1959 to 2010.
He was the longest-serving U.S. Senator and, at the time of his death, the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress.
(In June 2013, his record was surpassed by U.S. Representative John Dingell of Michigan). Byrd, however, still holds the record as the longest-serving member of Congress when considering terms accumulated in both houses. Byrd is also the only West Virginian to have served in both houses of the state legislature and both houses of Congress.
Byrd served in the West Virginia House of Delegates from 1947 to 1950, and the West Virginia State Senate from 1950 to 1952. Initially elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1952, Byrd served there for six years before being elected to the Senate in 1958.
He rose to become one of the Senate’s most powerful members, serving as secretary of the Senate Democratic Caucus from 1967 to 1971 and—after defeating his longtime colleague, Ted Kennedy—as Senate Majority Whip from 1971 to 1977.
Byrd led the Democratic caucus as Senate Majority Leader from 1977 to 1981 and 1987 to 1989, and as Senate Minority Leader from 1981 to 1987. From 1989 to 2010 he served as the President pro tempore of the United States Senate when the Democratic Party had a majority, and as President pro tempore emeritus during periods of Republican majority beginning in 2001.
As President pro tempore, he was third in the line of presidential succession, behind the Vice President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. He also served as the Chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Appropriations from 1989 to 1995, 2001 to 2003, and 2007 to 2009, giving him extraordinary influence over federal spending.
Byrd’s seniority and leadership of the Appropriations Committee enabled him to steer a great deal of federal money toward projects in West Virginia.
Critics derided his efforts as pork barrel spending, while Byrd argued that the many federal projects he worked to bring to West Virginia represented progress for the people of his state. He filibustered against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and supported the Vietnam War, but later backed civil rights measures and criticized the Iraq War.
Robert Byrd was born on November 20, 1917 as Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to Cornelius Calvin Sale Sr. and his wife Ada Mae Kirby.
When he was ten months old, his mother died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. In accordance with his mother’s wishes, his father dispersed their children among relatives. Calvin Jr. was adopted by his aunt and uncle, Titus and Vlurma Byrd, who changed his name to Robert Carlyle Byrd and raised him in the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia.
Byrd was valedictorian at Mark Twain High School in Tams, West Virginia and successively attended Beckley College, Concord College, Morris Harvey College, and Marshall University, all in West Virginia. He joined Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.
On May 29, 1937, Byrd married Erma Ora James (June 12, 1917 – March 25, 2006) who was born to a coal mining family in Floyd County, Virginia. Her family moved to Raleigh County, West Virginia, where she met Byrd when they attended the same school.
Robert Byrd had two children, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore; two sons-in-law, Mohammad Fatemi and Jon Moore; six grandchildren, Erik Byrd Fatemi, Mona Byrd Moore Pearson, Darius Fatemi, Mary Anne Moore Clarkson, Fredrik Fatemi, and Jon Michael Moore (deceased automobile accident in the 1980s); and seven great-grandchildren, Caroline Byrd Fatemi, Emma James Clarkson, Kathryn James Fatemi, Hannah Byrd Clarkson, Michael Yoo Fatemi, Anna Cristina Fatemi, and James Matthew Fatemi.
n the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to create a new chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in Sophia, West Virginia.
According to Byrd, a Klan official told him, “You have a talent for leadership, Bob … The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation.” Byrd later recalled, “Suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities! I was only 23 or 24 years old, and the thought of a political career had never really hit me. But strike me that night, it did.” Byrd became a recruiter and leader of his chapter. When it came time to elect the top officer (Exalted Cyclops) in the local Klan unit, Byrd won unanimously.
In 1946, Byrd wrote to segregationist Mississippi Senator Theodore G. 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.
Robert C. Byrd, in a letter to Sen. Theodore Bilbo (D-MS), 1946
In 1946, Byrd wrote a letter to a Grand Wizard stating, “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation.” However, when running for the United States House of Representatives in 1952, he announced “After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization. During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan.” He said he had joined the Klan because he felt it offered excitement and was anti-communist.
In 1997, Byrd told an interviewer he would encourage young people to become involved in politics but also warned, “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.”
In his last autobiography, Byrd explained that he was a KKK member because he “was sorely afflicted with tunnel vision — a jejune and immature outlook — seeing only what I wanted to see because I thought the Klan could provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.” Byrd also said, in 2005, “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.”
Byrd worked as a gas-station attendant, a grocery-store clerk, a shipyard welder during World War II, and a butcher, before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, representing Raleigh County from 1947 to 1950. Byrd became a local celebrity after a radio station in Beckley, WV began broadcasting his “fiery fundamentalist lessons.” In 1950, he was elected to the West Virginia Senate, where he served from 1951 to 1952.
In 1951, then–State Delegate Robert Byrd was among the official witnesses of the execution of Harry Burdette and Fred Painter, which was the first use of the electric chair in West Virginia. In 1965 the state abolished capital punishment, with the last execution having occurred in 1959.
Byrd began night classes at American University Washington College of Law in 1953, while a member of the United States House of Representatives. He received his J.D. cum laude a decade later, by which time he was a U.S. Senator. President John F. Kennedy spoke at the commencement ceremony on June 10, 1963 and presented the graduates their diplomas, including Byrd. Byrd completed law school in an era when undergraduate degrees were not a requirement.
He later decided to complete his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, and in 1994 he graduated summa cum laude from Marshall University.[In 1952, Byrd was elected to the United States House of Representatives for West Virginia’s 6th congressional district, succeeding E. H. Hedrick, who retired from the House to make an unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination for Governor. Byrd was re-elected to the House twice, serving from January 3, 1953 to 1959.
Byrd defeated Republican incumbent W. Chapman Revercomb for the United States Senate in 1958. Revercomb’s record supporting civil rights had become an issue, playing in Byrd’s favor. Byrd was re-elected to the Senate eight times.
He was West Virginia’s junior senator for his first four terms; his colleague from 1959 to 1985 was Jennings Randolph, who had been elected on the same day as Byrd’s first election in a special election to fill the seat of the late Senator Matthew Neely.
While Byrd faced some vigorous Republican opposition in his career, his last serious electoral opposition occurred in 1982 when he was challenged by freshman Congressman Cleve Benedict. Despite his tremendous popularity in the state, Byrd ran unopposed only once, in 1976.
On two other occasions – in 1994 and 2000 – he won all 55 of West Virginia’s counties. In his re-election bid in 2000, he won all but seven precincts. Shelley Moore Capito, a Congresswoman and the daughter of Byrd’s longtime foe, former governor Arch Moore, Jr., briefly considered a challenge to Byrd in 2006 but decided against it.
In the 1960 Democratic presidential election primaries, Byrd – a close Senate ally of Lyndon B. Johnson – endorsed and campaigned for Hubert Humphrey over front-runner John F. Kennedy in the state’s crucial primary. However, Kennedy won the state’s primary and eventually the general election.
Byrd was elected to a record ninth consecutive full Senate term on November 7, 2006. He became the longest-serving senator in American history on June 12, 2006, surpassing Strom Thurmond of South Carolina with 17,327 days of service.
On November 18, 2009, Byrd became the longest-serving member in congressional history, with 56 years, 320 days of combined service in the House and Senate, passing Carl Hayden, an Arizona politician. Previously, Byrd had held the record for the longest unbroken tenure in the Senate (Thurmond resigned during his first term and was re-elected seven months later).
He is the only senator ever to serve more than 50 years. Including his tenure as a state legislator from 1947 to 1953, Byrd’s service on the political front exceeded 60 continuous years. Byrd, who never lost an election, cast his 18,000th vote on June 21, 2007, the most of any senator in history. John Dingell broke Byrd’s record as longest-serving member of Congress on June 7, 2013.
Upon the death of former Florida Senator George Smathers on January 20, 2007, Byrd became the last living United States Senator from the 1950s.
Byrd was the last surviving senator to have voted on a bill granting statehood to a U.S. territory. At the time of Byrd’s death, fourteen sitting or former members of the Senate had not been born when Byrd’s tenure in the Senate began, President Barack Obama among them.