THE WORKING STIFF — By Darren Garnick
The Boston Herald
July 7, 2010
Obituaries are resumes for dead people. Having written countless obits myself, I can confirm that you will be forever defined by what you do for work and which membership cards are in your wallet.
If you’re not famous, your obituary may be emailed or dictated over the phone by the funeral home at the last minute. If you are “somebody,” the Associated Press already has your obit prewritten, with fill-in-the-blanks left for age and cause of death. The editor will usually have only three or four words to sum up your life in the headline.
If I were on the copy desk when U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd died at age 92 last week, here’s what I would have submitted: “Robert Byrd, KKK Dirtbag.”
Imagine if you or I once had a significant leadership role in the Ku Klux Klan. How would that impact our subsequent career moves?
In Boston, the KKK is a poisonous brand. Take a look at the Fenway Park wall when fans count the Red Sox pitcher’s strikeouts – the third “K” is always displayed backwards. But in West Virginia in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, it was the equivalent of having a million Facebook friends.
Byrd played the race card when it worked for him – he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and embraced diversity when it later became politically necessary. Four decades after embracing the firehoses, he scored a 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP for his voting record.
To its credit, the NAACP hasn’t forgotten Byrd’s historical KKK connection. They mentioned it in the second paragraph of their press release mourning the senator’s death. But for much of the Washington elite, the KKK thing isn’t such a big deal.
Hillary Clinton called Byrd her “mentor.” Bill Clinton conceded that being a fan of burning crosses was “something he shouldn’t have done,” but that “he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does.” And America’s first black president loves the “Senate icon” and “elder statesman” too.
“None of us are absent some regrets, senator,” said Barack Obama at the funeral. “That’s why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.”
Byrd’s 2,900-word obituary in The New York Times waits until the 16th paragraph to mention the Klan’s role in his rise to power. USA Today first brings up the KKK in the eighth paragraph of its Capitol memorial coverage. Comparing Byrd to Abraham Lincoln for their shared love of the U.S. Constitution (cough, cough!), the celebrated Washington Post columnist David Broder doesn’t even bother to mention the Klan at all.
Because Byrd’s knowledge of Shakespearean plays and his prowess as a fiddler are so prominently featured in his obits, you might think that his Klan membership was an accident like one of those unwanted magazine subscriptions that keep resurfacing in your mailbox.
Reality: Byrd recruited and organized a new Klan chapter of 150 men and rose to the titles of Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops, the top local rank.
In his autobiography, “Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields,” he explains that 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.”
That’s pretty much why the Nazis attracted so many doctors, lawyers and professors long before they seized power. Career advancement at any cost.
Yes, it’s wonderful when KKK members stop the lynchings and start painting murals of MLK in Harlem or sing Adam Sandler’s “Hanukkah Song” at Jewish nursing homes. But none of that erases the horrors of what they did under the cover of white sheets.
Byrd had the guts to admit he had “tunnel vision.” Maybe it’s time the rest of us get out of the tunnel and remember both sides of the senator’s career.
Darren Garnick’s “Working Stiff” column runs every Wednesday in the Herald. Check out the Stiff blog at http://www.bostonherald.com/blogs/