Robert Byrd: A true statesman (Rep. John Lewis)

Though early in our lives we were rooted in very different philosophies, we did share some things in common.  Like me, Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings.  He was the son of an Appalachian coal miner and I was the son of a southern sharecropper. We both moved from our hometowns at a young age, Senator Byrd from North Carolina to West Virginia and me from Alabama to Georgia. We were both Baptists. We were so different yet, so alike, change in some instances is needed.

In his early years, Senator Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan and was encouraged by the regional grand dragon to run for office. While I was fighting for civil rights, getting arrested, and being beaten by members of the Klan, Senator Byrd stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate giving a 14-hour and 13-minute speech to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the very legislation I was trying to get passed. He later admitted that the filibuster of the Act was his “biggest regret.” He saw the error of his ways.

Sen. Robert Byrd was publicly embarrassed about his membership in the Klan. It was something he apologized for over and over, time and time again, calling his involvement with the organization “a sad mistake” and stating that “intolerance had no place in America.” It became most evident that he had dramatically changed his views after the loss of his grandson in an auto accident. He then realized that black people loved their children just as much as he loved his own. Senator Byrd sought change and with that change he became one of the staunchest supporters of civil rights I had ever seen.

Senator Byrd appropriated money for memorials to civil rights’ icons. And when President George W. Bush signed the extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Senator Byrd stood alongside me and Senator Ted Kennedy, signing the register, a proud supporter of the legislation’s renewal. How ironic it is that a former Klansman from a coal mining town in West Virginia would stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder with an African-American and former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from the Deep South as colleagues in these great halls.

Senator Byrd’s most undeniable demonstration of change was in the year 2008 when the Democratic Party had the task of selecting its candidate for president. The field had been narrowed to two people, two U.S. senators. They were Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Though Mrs. Clinton won the state of West Virginia in the primary, Senator Byrd backed the first black presidential candidate with a legitimate chance at victory throwing his support behind Barack Obama.

Senator Byrd and I stood together on many issues but the most prominent issue was our opposition of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He too was a fierce critic of the 2002 congressional resolution that allowed President George. W. Bush to declare war on Iraq.

The citizens of West Virginia have lost a great leader, who so many times ensured that they were well represented in the senate sending appropriated funds back to his home state to build highways, bridges, and buildings. He was a champion in the Senate who strutted around its halls with a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his breast pocket often referring to the document when he felt it was necessary. One of my deepest regrets is that Senator Byrd had invited me to his office on several occasions. However, due to the commanding schedules of both the House and Senate, I never made it over there to visit him. He was a gentleman, kind and always friendly.

This building will sorely miss the commanding presence of our dear Senator Byrd. There is none like him. He made a significant change in his life and that is what counts the most. That is what this country is about, the capacity for each one of us to grow and change. I will miss Senator Byrd; he was a true statesman.