Two stories that have one common thread — bigotry. One is a veteran lawmaker who attempts to come clean about his history with the Ku Klux Klan. Eric Pianin profiles Robert Byrd and his new book in the Washington Post.
In the early 1940s, a politically ambitious butcher from West Virginia named Bob Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the “Grand Dragon” for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter.
As Byrd recalls now, the Klan official, Joel L. Baskin of Arlington, Va., was so impressed with the young Byrd’s organizational skills that he urged him to go into politics. “The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation,” Baskin said.
The young Klan leader went on to become one of the most powerful and enduring figures in modern Senate history. Throughout a half-century on Capitol Hill, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has twice held the premier leadership post in the Senate, helped win ratification of the Panama Canal treaty, squeezed billions from federal coffers to aid his home state, and won praise from liberals for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his defense of minority party rights in the Senate.
Despite his many achievements, however, the venerated Byrd has never been able to fully erase the stain of his association with one of the most reviled hate groups in the nation’s history.
Byrd’s indelible links to the Klan — the “albatross around my neck,” as he once described it — shows the remarkable staying power of racial issues more than 40 years after the height of the civil rights movement. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) learned that lesson the hard way at a birthday party in December 2002, when his nostalgic words about Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who ran for president as a segregationist in 1948, caused a public uproar and cost Lott the majority leader’s post.
By relentlessly serving his state’s economic interests, Byrd has secured his place as West Virginia’s preeminent politician. As a long-reigning chairman and ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, Byrd pumped billions of dollars worth of jobs, programs and projects into the state that did not have a single mile of divided four-lane highway when he began his political career. More than three dozen bridges, highways, schools and public buildings are named for him.
Still, says Ken Hechler, 90, a liberal Democratic former U.S. House member from West Virginia who served with Byrd in Congress, “It’s impossible for anyone to try to whitewash the KKK and its overall symbolism.”
“But at the same time,” he added, “we honor those people who publicly admit the error of their ways.”
Last week, Byrd said: “I know now 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.”
Senator Byrd may never be able to shake off his past with the KKK, but at least he is doing what he believes he can to atone for his sins.
On the other hand, contrast that with this story by Russell Shorto in the New York Times Sunday magazine about the rise of the anti-gay marriage movement.
Those at the center of the opposition are, almost to a person, motivated by their brand of Christian beliefs. That was apparent in conversations I had with activists around Maryland and in several other states, and it was much in evidence at a dinner that Laura Clark arranged for my benefit, to which she had invited six friends who were active in the cause, all of whom were eager to explain what drives them. Most were born and raised in Maryland, and all but one — who is registered as an Independent — are Republicans. We made our way around the buffet Laura laid out on the dining-room table — sliced lunch meats, hamburger buns, tomato and onion slices, bowls of pretzels and chips, cookies and several two-quart plastic bottles of soda — then sat down to chat.
Brian Racer is pastor to Laura and Dave Clark and a local opinion shaper on social issues. He is a tall, rangy 43-year-old man with a big mustache and a conversational style that is casual but enormously self-confident. Racer has a vigorous Christianity-in-society approach, which is illustrated by a recent move he made. When Mel Gibson’s movie ”The Passion of the Christ” came out in February 2004, he, like many ministers around the country, booked a whole theater in the local multiplex to accommodate the members of his church. But the venue itself — comfortable seats, good acoustics, convenient location — clicked for him. He worked out a rental arrangement with the manager of the theater. So now the Clarks and their fellow congregants worship at the Open Door Bible Church in Theater 24 in the Muvico multiplex at the Arundel Mills Mall. ”The teens think it’s pretty cool,” he said. ”After service they can go have lunch at the food court, then come back to the theater and see a movie.”
I found what Racer had to say on the subject of homosexuality a clear and direct summation of the views of the others Laura had invited over that night and of the other anti-gay-marriage activists with whom I spoke. ”The Hebrew words for male and female are actually the words for the male and female genital parts,” he told me. ”The male is the piercer; the female is the pierced. That is the way God designed it. It’s unfortunate that homosexuals have taken the moniker ‘gay,’ because their lifestyle and its consequences are anything but. Look what has happened in the decades since the sexual revolution and acceptance of the gay lifestyle as normal. Viruses have mutated. S.T.D.’s have spread. It shows that when we try to change the natural course of things, what comes out of that is not joy or gayness.”
The others in Laura Clark’s living room, sitting with paper plates balanced on their laps, nodded and added supporting sentiments. Explaining how homosexuality resembles an insidious disease, Racer said, ”If you have a same-gendered union, you have no natural, biological way to propagate your philosophy.” So, he explained, it seeks to spread itself by other means, including popular culture. Bryan Simonaire added: ”We have to recognize that they have a strategy to propagate their lifestyle. Think back 10 or 20 years ago, when you had the first openly homosexual person on TV. It was shocking to a lot of people. Now it’s the norm on television, so you don’t have the shock factor. Then they had two men with a passionate kiss on TV. That’s the road they’re heading down. They have a strategy.”
But, of course, the Christian activists aren’t vague in their opposition. For them, the issue isn’t one of civil rights, because the term implies something inherent in the individual — being black, say, or a woman — and they deny that homosexuality is inherent. It can’t be, because that would mean God had created some people who are damned from birth, morally blackened. This really is the inescapable root of the whole issue, the key to understanding those working against gay marriage as well as the engine driving their vehicle in the larger culture war: the commitment, on the part of a growing number of people, to a variety of religious belief that is so thoroughgoing it permeates every facet of life and thought, that rejects the secular, pluralistic grounding of society and that answers all questions internally.
The only difference between the people gathered in Laura Clark’s living room and the KKK is that the Klan wears a uniform. These people and their movement, hiding behind the safe shield of their so-called “religious beliefs,” are bigots, plain and simple, no better than the raving Klansmen and White Power warriors that gather in the woods of northern Idaho. They may seek the respectability of the shopping malls and the cul de sacs of suburbia, and they may use the scriptures of Christianity to justify their hatred, but history has taught us that intolerance and inhumanity have made their greatest strides in our civilization by inculcating themselves into the mainstream and insinuating themselves into the power structures such as political parties and local government. These people have now spread their gospel into the seats of power in Washington and numerous state capitals, and they will not rest until they have achieved their vision of a “Christian” theme park writ large as a nation. Today Maryland — tomorrow the world.
The time for tolerance is over. Those of us who have laughed off or mocked the anti-gay activists have enabled them by not taking their movement seriously. We know what they want. They have made it clear: the comments last week by a spokesman for the Christian Coalition suggesting that gays be equipped with warning labels was the latest shot in their attempt to marginalize and ostracize an entire class of people. They are no better than the Klan, and what they can’t do with a lynch mob and a rope they will do with legislation and Constitutional amendments. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to let it happen, and I’m not going to let the shield of religion protect the propogation of hatred.
Happy Father’s Day.