2003Commentary

Sen. Byrd

The View From Darrell's Barbershop
By: 
Colbert I. King
March 2, 2002;
Page A23

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Things finally started to calm down in Darrell's barbershop after Big Jerome, the trash talker, left the premises. The place had been in an uproar minutes earlier when Jerome, angry at being left out of the poor-mouthing contest between Sen. Robert Byrd and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, cut loose with some of his own choice "I'm so poor..." lines.

The fellows were still wiping away tears of laughter. But Darrell hoped the shop would get back to normal so he and the other barbers could get on with their work. Before long, with composure regained, customers and barbers were lost in their reveries.

It didn't last long.

Fishbone, now seated in Darrell's chair, broke the silence. "Somebody help me," he pleaded.

"Look, I understand all that stuff Byrd and O'Neill were laying on each other about not having running water, telephones and electricity when they were young. And I get the bit about 'little wooden outhouses.' "

"But," said Fishbone, wrinkling his brow, "when Byrd took a shot at O'Neill for once being a big shot in a big-bucks corporation, O'Neill got all teary-eyed and said something about dedicating his life to getting rid of rules that limit human potential. And he started talking about rules that said, 'Colored don't enter here.' Can somebody tell me what that was all about?" wailed Fishbone.

The only sound was that of scissors snipping away.

Finally Fatmouth piped up. "Man, don'tcha know? It was in all the papers!"

"I don't take the paper," said Fishbone sheepishly.

"See there," thundered Fatmouth. "If you wanna keep a secret from certain folks," he said, "all you have to do is put it in a book." "Man," Fatmouth said indignantly, "you should start reading The Post." (Yes, 'tis a shameless promotion, but my wife and two dogs also have to eat.)

"All right, you guys, chill," ordered number two barber Bobby T. "Fishbone," he said with exasperation, "O'Neill was cracking on Byrd for having been a member of the Ku Klux Klan."

"He was what?" asked Fishbone incredulously. "You mean that powerful ol' dude in the Senate was one of those Kluxers in sheets and pointed hoods who burned crosses and hated black folks?"

"If I'm lyin', I'm flyin'," said Bobby T.

Herman, who was sweeping up hair cuttings on the floor, tried to come to Byrd's rescue. "As I recall," said Herman, "they said it was a 'youthful indiscretion' or something like that."

" 'Youthful indiscretion' my butt," interjected Rodney, who, despite having already had his hair cut, couldn't leave the shop.

"Sounds just like when my Aunt Edith shot her boyfriend and said it was an accident," he said. "Aunt Marilyn was downstairs when it happened. She heard the gun when it went off.

" 'One "boom" sounds like an accident,' Aunt Marilyn announced.

" 'Boom, boom, boom' sure ain't."

Just then, Mr. Jackson, a Washington old-timer and local historian known for his photographic memory, entered the shop for his weekly trim and chance to smoke his cigar, since Mrs. Jackson was having none of that in her house. He soon caught the drift of the discussion and waited patiently until Darrell turned to him for a definitive reading on the Byrd situation.

"What's the real deal, Mr. Jackson?" asked Darrell.

Settling into a well-worn chair in the middle of the shop where he usually held court, Mr. Jackson pulled out his stogie, lit it, took a few unhurried puffs and let the smoke drift to the ceiling. "The real story came out during the 1960 presidential primary in West Virginia, where Byrd was a key figure in the 'Stop Kennedy' campaign," Jackson said.

"Word got around that Byrd had been a Klan member, but he tried to say it was only briefly." Mr. Jackson, who'd anticipated a barbershop discussion of just this topic, pulled an old news clipping out of his pocket, an April 21, 1960, Washington Post story by David Wise of the Herald Tribune News Service. He read from it:

"The Ku Klux Klan developed primarily as a terrorist group aimed at the Southern Negro in Reconstruction times, but it is also virulently anti-Catholic."

John F. Kennedy, Mr. Jackson reminded his audience, was Catholic.

On the business about Byrd's brief Klan membership, Mr. Jackson again quoted the story: "The fact is that he was a Kleagle, or organizer, for the Klan during World War II and wrote as late as 1946 to Dr. Samuel Green of Atlanta, Imperial Grand Wizard of the Klan, recommending a friend as a Kleagle and urging promotion of the Klan throughout the nation."

Mr. Jackson said the story also reported that in 1946, Byrd wrote to Imperial Wizard Green: "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia."

As for "youthful indiscretion," Mr. Jackson observed that in 1946, Robert Byrd was 29 years old. American Taliban John Walker Lindh, he pointed out, is 20.

Byrd knew what he was doing, said Mr. Jackson. In 1945, a year earlier, Byrd wrote to Mississippi's virulent segregationist Sen. Theodore Bilbo that he would never serve in an integrated Army. "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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds," Byrd wrote. Confronted with the letter in 1999, Byrd said he didn't recall writing it, but he said, "I will not dispute the quote, though I consider it deplorable."

Mr. Jackson, ever the historian, said that in 1946, the same year Kleagle Robert Byrd was writing to his imperial wizard, six blacks were lynched in America, including two black couples at the Moore's Ford Bridge near Monroe, Ga., and a young black man who was burned alive with a blowtorch by a Louisiana mob. And a black Army veteran also had his eyes gouged out with the butt of a billy club by South Carolina police.

The resurgence of lynchings and violence against blacks in the South got so bad in '46 that President Truman was spurred to order a special federal investigation. That same year, Byrd was elected to the West Virginia legislature. Four years later, he went to Congress, where he's been ever since.

And that, said Mr. Jackson, may help explain why Sen. Byrd rode the city so hard when he became chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District of Columbia.

At a public hearing this week, said Mr. Jackson, Byrd lectured the Bush administration on the difficulties of rooting out terrorists. Mr. Jackson added softly, "He should know."

With that recitation, Mr. Jackson crossed his legs at the knee, folded his hands in his lap and said primly, "You gentlemen may take it from there."

A hush fell over the shop.

An angry voice was heard from the back of the shop.

"And since he's been in Washington, Byrd's been using my money and yours to build monuments to himself in West Virginia." It was Fast Frankie, who, until that moment, had not said a word.

Frankie has folks in the Charleston area and gets back to visit frequently. Frankie said Byrd has more pork in West Virginia than there is in all the packing houses in the world -- all in his name.

"Don't think so?" he challenged. "There's the Robert C. Byrd Highway, the Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex, the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse, the Robert C. Byrd Life Long Learning Center, the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dams, the Robert C. Byrd Rural Health Center, the Robert C. Byrd Academic and Technology Center, the Robert C. Byrd United Technical Center, the Robert C. Byrd High School, the Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing..."

It was getting dark outside, and everyone was eager to go home. But Darrell couldn't budge Fast Frankie. So he flipped the "closed" sign on the door, locked his barbershop and left Fast Frankie inside, comfortably seated in his chair, still going strong:

". . . the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, the Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center, the Robert C. Byrd Intermodal Transportation Center and Garage..."

Commentary 2003