As politicians and columnists across the country debate the life and legacy of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginian’s membership in the Ku Klux Klan has been a sticking point for many. Today’s KKK, though, says Byrd did nothing to warrant such ire.
“He wasn’t a Klansman long enough to get his sheet broke in,” said Travis Pierce, national membership director for the Ku Klux Klan, LLC, one of several groups that uses the KKK name. “It’s much ado about nothing.”
It’s unknown how long Byrd held membership in the Klan. According to the Washington Post, the future senator joined in 1942, and later publicly stated that he lost interest after about a year, although in a letter dated 1946 Byrd wrote, “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.”
During his tenure, Byrd held the titles of Kleagle and Exalted Cyclops within the organization. What he did in those positions is somewhat difficult to pin down, since the Klan is a loose-knit organization, and roles differ between local chapters.
Pierce, though, said neither of Byrd’s ranks came with much responsibility.
“Kleagle is just a recruiter — he talks to people who are interested in being in the Klan,” Pierce said. “Exalted Cyclops simply means he was head of a unit of probably no more than five people. He was sort of the coordinator for their activities.”
Pierce described an Exalted Cyclops as the guy who makes sure there are hotdogs if the group is having a barbecue.
“That’s not very high up the totem pole, that’s very doggone low. It is an extremely marginal title,” Pierce said. “He had no voice, he had no vote, he had no position of power whatsoever.”
The Post asserts that as Exalted Cyclops, Byrd led his local chapter, which contained approximately 150 men.
“A lot of this gets hyped up. The odds of having that huge a group, even in that area, are really unreal, especially for a new untried EC,” Pierce said. “In reality, if there were over 10 or 12, I’d just be shocked right out of my mind.”
Pierce also defended Byrd’s membership in the organization.
“Just like in Truman’s day, it was a thing you did. It was a fraternal organization,” Pierce said. “There’s no proof that he committed any kind of crime or anything while a Klansman.”
In the end, Pierce said the media have blown the issue way out of proportion.
“It’s just a way of smearing his career and his life. If they were to see Robert Byrd walking on the water, the headline would read, ‘Senator Byrd, who cannot swim, is walking on the water,'” Pierce said. “They’re milking that KKK for all it’s worth.”
To Klansmen, Byrd wasn’t a hero Senator to be loved, or a villain deserter to be hated, Pierce said, but a simple public servant.
“We don’t particularly mourn him as anything other than a man who served his country honorably.”
Additional Ku Klux Klan organizations could not be reached by press time.