Sunday, July 4, 2010

Robert Byrd: Lessons on Life from Ku Klux Klan to Civil Rights Advocate

"I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side... rather, I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again..."

These are the words of Robert Carlyle Byrd - a United States citizen who rose from the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan to a civil rights advocate. Senator Robert Byrd died on Monday 28 June 2010, at the age of 92. The story of Robert Byrd is a story worth telling; it's a story packed with lessons on a life from Ku Klux Klan to a civil rights advocate and guardian of the Constitution.

Last week, I came across the news of the death of a U.S. Senator - Robert Byrd - a man who opposed civil rights and equal rights at the time he ran for election into the United States House of Representatives in 1952. Reading further, I learned he later had a change of heart and became a fierce civil rights advocate, and carried the U.S Constitution in his chest pocket at all times.

In the 1940s, Robert Byrd joined the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, he was young - 23 or 24 years old. He later became disinterested in the movement and blamed his decision to join the organisation on the "Southern Atmosphere" in which he grew up and the "prejudices and its feelings". It is worth reiterating that according to Robert Byrd, the atmosphere in which he grew up engineered his opposition to equal rights.

CNN reports that according to Robert Byrd, the decision to join the Ku Klux Klan was "the greatest mistake" he ever made. As a Senator, his biggest regret was his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In 1964, he voted against the civil rights bill that extended civil rights to African Americans. In 2005, he said if he had to do it again, he would change his vote for the 1964 Act. WATCH...

Without going into his political carreer, and what Senator Robert Byrd did and did not do as a Senator for West Virginia, the point of interest is - Robert Byrd is a man who made a grave mistake in his youth; a mistake that was corrected, but hunted him for the rest of his long life.

Hunted by a dark past, Robert Byrd is quoted by Reuters to have asked former Senator Alan Simpson: "... do our colleagues fear me or respect me?"

Are you feared or respected? If you're feared, I am afraid there is a problem!

The story of Senator Robert Byrd is a lesson for the many young people who still have an opportunity to make the right choices, and refrain from going down the wrong road, in search of some sort of "excitement" - which would later become a burden. Senator Robert Byrd made this mistake, but reinvented himself and became a champion for civil rights and equality for all.

How would you be remembered?

Robert Byrd will be remembered  as the longest serving (as of today) Senator on Capitol Hill - a civil rights advocate and guardian of the U.S. Constitution. His life is full of lessons; lessons on a life from Ku Klux Klan to civil rights advocate. In his words, "it's a lesson to the young people of today, that once a major mistake has been made in one's life, it will always be there...".

It is worth mentioning that the Senator seized every opportunity to apologize:
"I know I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times... and I don't mind apologizing over and over again. I can't erase what happened."
On the order of President Barack Obama, the flag of the U.S. shall be flown on half-staff "as a mark of respect for the memory and longstanding service of Senator Robert C. Byrd...". The flag shall be on half-staff from Wednesday, 30 June, with the exception of July 4 2010 (Independence Day), till the "great patriot" is laid to rest.

Once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, USA Today  notes that Senator Robert Byrd went on to endorse America's first black President.

Funeral service is scheduled for 6 July 2010.

You are encouraged to read the Senator's autobiography: "Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfieds.

It's 4 July - Permit me to seize this opportunity to say: Happy birthday to the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave!! Happy Independence Day to you - all Americans!!

*Photo: Reuters.

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