Name That Klansman: Robert Byrd And David Duke

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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The two major political parties’ most famous former Klan leaders are back in the news, thanks to revelations that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise addressed (or sort of addressed) a group of white racists in 2002.

In the Republicans’ corner, there is David Duke, founder of the group that invited Scalise. In the Democrats’ corner, there is Robert Byrd, a West Virginian who served in the Senate for 51 years until his death in 2010. Let’s see how the two most famous Klansmen in recent American politics compare.

David Duke outranked Robert Byrd in the Ku Klux Klan. Duke was a grand wizard or imperial wizard, which despite its Harry Potter connotations is actually the highest position in the hate group. Apparently this terminology was too kooky even for Duke, who later designated himself the Klan’s national director.

Byrd was linked to various titles, including kleagle and exalted cyclops. While the Anti-Defamation League has said Duke was responsible for a 1970s “resurgence” of the Klan, Byrd was a 1940s recruiter who, according to The Washington Post, “collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant.”

The grand dragon of the Klan for the Mid-Atlantic region was so impressed with Byrd that he encouraged him to go into politics. “The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation,” the Post quoted the Klan leader telling Byrd. “Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.” The future senator didn’t let the grand dragon down.

Robert Byrd outranked David Duke as a politician. Byrd served in Congress for 57 years, a record only recently broken by Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell. Byrd was a three-term congressman and nine-term senator. He rose to become the top Democrat in the Senate.

Duke was competitive in several elections and occupied some parish-level Republican leadership positions in Louisiana, but never held an elected office higher than state representative. Byrd was actually an elected official more recently (2010) than Duke (1992). Byrd won more than 64 percent of the vote in his final statewide race in West Virginia in 2006. Duke won 12 percent in his final statewide race in Louisiana in 1996. Both were Senate campaigns. Duke subsequently lost a House race with 19 percent of the vote in 1999.

Robert Byrd outranked David Duke in their respective political parties. Duke was never the endorsed Republican candidate for any office. He did, however, sometimes beat the endorsed Republican candidate in Louisiana’s “jungle” primary system, in which candidates run regardless of party affiliation. When he was the top Republican vote-getter for Senate in 1990 and governor in 1991, he was repudiated by the national party and the sitting Republican president of the United States. His most senior party leadership position was St. Tamany Parish GOP chairman.

Byrd won Democratic primaries for various offices from 1946 to 2006. He was the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate from 1971 to 1977 and then the Democratic leader from 1977 to 1989, including two stints as Senate majority leader. Byrd voluntarily relinquished his leadership position to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee, which helped him direct federal money to West Virginia. He was president pro tempore of the Senate at the time of his death. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama attended his funeral.

David Duke never stopped being a racist. After leaving the Klan in 1980, Duke founded the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Approximately 20 years later, he started the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, the group with which Scalise has become entangled. Duke still travels the world spreading racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Byrd’s Klan activities appear to have stopped sometime around 1946. While he filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he consistently voted for civil rights bills after 1968. Byrd voted against both black nominees to the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas, but endorsed Obama in 2008, only seven years after using the “n word” on national television.

Unlike Duke, Byrd is not responsible for tying any contemporary politician to a racist organization.

Both David Duke and Robert Byrd were cagey about their racial history. Byrd claimed he was only a member of the Klan for a year and, according to his New York Times obituary, “insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence.” Like a teenager who subscribed to Playboy for the articles, Byrd said he joined the Klan for its anti-communism.

But Byrd wrote segregationist Mississippi Democratic Sen. Theodore Bilbo in 1946 to say he would never fight in an integrated military — “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” — and assert the “Klan is needed today as never before.”

At the peak of his political career in the 1980s and early ’90s, Duke claimed to have undergone a Christian conversion. He said he disavowed the Klan and Holocaust denial. He merely opposed affirmative action, which he compared to the policies of Nazi Germany. It didn’t take long for him to revert to form, talking about his “racial awakening,” continuing to make the kind of statements Byrd appears to have stopped uttering in the 1940s.

Both David Duke and Robert Byrd lost the Democratic presidential nomination. Byrd was a favorite son candidate for president in 1976, beating George Wallace in West Virginia’s Democratic primary. Duke was a favorite son candidate for president in 1988, finishing 3,000 votes behind Gary Hart in Louisiana’s Democratic primary. Jesse Jackson won.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.