Bethany College in West Virginia has dumped late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd’s name from a building. Byrd was the longest-serving member of the United States Senate in history. He served West Virginia from 1951 until his death in office in 2010 at age 92.
He was one of the most powerful members of the Senate and served as both Senate Majority and Senate Minority Leader at various times. Byrd steered plenty of tax dollars West Virginia’s way and his family is known for their generosity to charities and educational institutions like Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. So why 10 years after his death are they removing his name from their health building?
In addition to being a powerful leader in the Senate, Byrd also rose to the top levels of the Ku Klux Klan.
Back in the early 1940s, he recruited over 150 friends and family members to join the organization in West Virginia. When he received praise for his ability to organize men, Byrd began to consider a career in politics.
Klan leaders were so impressed with his recruiting ability, they selected him as Exalted Cyclops, the highest-ranking local position in the white-supremacist group.
In 1944, he wrote a letter condemning the integration of the US Armed Forces. Byrd declared he would never fight alongside black soldiers and that, “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.”
Civil Rights Opponent
Once in office, Byrd strongly opposed Civil Rights legislation. He famously joined several Democratic senators and filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Byrd claimed that he changed many of his opinions after the death of his grandson in the 1980s. In his later career, he was widely embraced by black leaders within the Democratic party. The NAACP declared his 2003-2004 voting record to be “perfect.”
President Barack Obama called said Byrd was a great example of the “Capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect.”
Change, Listen and Learn
Bethany College announced the removal of Byrd’s name from the health center on Wednesday. “Today, we formally and officially are removing the Byrd name from our Health Center to demonstrate Bethany College’s capacity to change, to listen, and to learn.”
The college said the action was spurred by the recent string of protests after George Floyd died from injuries sustained in police custody.
“The last few weeks, and well before the conversations and calls for change took hold, we recognized as a campus that the name of our Robert C. Byrd Health Center created divisiveness and pain for members of Bethany community, both past, and present.”
The college said it still respected the Byrd family name but felt it didn’t represent the college in the modern world. “And so from this point forward, a new chapter begins on our campus, one informed by more diverse voices, one predicated on mutual respect and human value, and one that aims to unite through words, actions and hope.”