Donald Trump is not the only presidential candidate facing a media scandal involving white supremacist group Ku Klux Klan. A video has surfaced of Hillary Clinton warmly eulogizing a former KKK leader, Robert Byrd, after his death in 2010.
In the video, Clinton called the late Klan leader, a member of the US Senate, a “friend and mentor” and a man of “surpassing eloquence and nobility”. As Secretary of State, she said, she relied on his support and counsel.
“We will not see his like again,” she said. “Robert C. Byrd left such a legacy.”
Byrd first became involved with the KKK in the early 1940’s after a Klan official told him he had a “talent for leadership”. Byrd was not only a member of the KKK, but a leader within the organization: he recruited 150 friends and associates to found a new chapter in West Virginia.
According to a letter he sent in 1944 to Senator Theodore Bilbo, Byrd was afraid of having to fight besides black soldiers in World War Two. “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,” he wrote.
He advocated for the growth of the Klan up until 1946 or so, writing to a KKK Grand Wizard, “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, his stance changed when he ran for the House of Representatives in 1952. During his campaign, he said of his time in the KKK, “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.”
Despite his past, he became a successful politician, serving in the senate for nearly 50 years. During that time, he occasionally referred to the KKK, expressing regret for his role in the organization.
Byrd said he had joined the Klan because it offered “excitement” and was anti-communist. In his autobiography, he wrote that “tunnel vision” caused him to believe the Klan could “provide an outlet for my talents and ambitions.”
In 1997, Byrd spoke again of the KKK, warning young people not to get involved. “Don’t get that albatross around your neck. Once you’ve made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena,” he said.
He apologized again in 2005, saying, “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.”
Following Donald Trump’s KKK trip-up, in which he was reluctant to condemn David Duke, a former, unrepentant KKK leader, a photo of Clinton embracing Robert Byrd began to circulate online, causing the debunking website Snopes.com to seek out the truth about the connection between the two. Their result: “True,” the website confirmed, but pointed out that Byrd had left the KKK and subsequently condemned it.
Snopes.com also printed a statement released by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on the occasion of Byrd’s death, which read, “Senator Byrd reflects the transformative power of this nation… [he] went from being an active member of the KKK to a being a stalwart supporter of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and many other pieces of seminal legislation that advanced the civil rights and liberties of our country.”
Byrd’s shift in beliefs represents not only the transformative power of America, but the process of teshuva, or repentance – one of the most important Jewish principles. To do teshuva, which literally means “to return”, means that one has made the decision to leave negative traits and behaviors behind and “return” to God and the straight path.
Despite that, Clinton’s association with Byrd may come back to haunt her as she and Trump, the two front-runners for their respective parties’ nominations, prepare to go head-to-head in a battle for the presidency.