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Remembering Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s Life and Legacy in the U.S. Senate

Sen. Robert C. Byrd — known for his staunch defense of the Constitution and for steering billions of dollars to his home state — died Monday after more than a half century representing West Virginia in Congress, ending the longest career in Congress ever. He was 92.

Born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. in 1917, he was adopted by an aunt and uncle a year later. He grew up in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia. He graduated as the valedictorian of Mark Twain High School and married his childhood sweetheart Erma James in 1937.

Known as a passionate orator and Washington power player, Byrd also had his share of political controversy. At age 24, Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan — a decision that would both help and haunt his political career. Noticing his skill for recruiting men to join a local chapter, a Klan official urged him to run for the state Legislature.

Monday on the NewsHour, we’ll have remembrances of the senator, featuring interviews with Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette editor Jim Haught, who once worked for Byrd, and West Virginia Wesleyan College professor Robert Rupp.

Here, Haught and Rupp discuss Byrd’s humble upbringing and his political legacy:

From an early age, Byrd played the fiddle and he used that instrument to attract audiences to hear his campaign speeches. Here’s an appearance of his on the Grand Ole Opry that was broadcast on public television:

Once in Congress, Byrd became famous for steering money back to the Mountain State. As Rupp puts it:

He delivered to the state key projects. What the outside world called “pork” he and West Virginians called “needed infrastructure.” He was determined that this poor rural state, virtually all mountains, not a single natural lake in there, needed help and he provided that help. He was unabashed in doing that.

The two ironies in the career of Robert C Byrd – the first is that he wasn’t born in West Virginia. He was born in North Carolina and then when his mother died he moved. So the man who is most identified to the state wasn’t born in the state.

And the second irony is … when he moved to West Virginia that was changed, so the name we see all over West Virginia [on buildings, highways, etc] wasn’t even his. But in a sense he was the adopted son who became West Virginian.

Here, Rupp discusses Senator Byrd’s respect for both the U.S. and Roman Senate.

Byrd’s membership in the Klan and his filibustering of the 1964 Civil Rights Act brought him much criticism throughout his career, and he repeatedly apologized for both. His views on civil rights later softened publicly and he eventually endorsed Sen. Barack Obama’s bid for president. Here, Rupp discusses Byrd’s evolving views on civil rights:

We’ll have much more on Byrd’s life and legacy on Monday’s NewsHour.

All photos courtesy of The Charleston Gazette, which also put together the following timeline of his life. West Virginia Public Broadcasting also has this profile of Byrd’s life and career.

Dave Gustafson, a former Gazette reporter, contributed to this story.

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