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From Ku Klux Klan Member to Iraq War Opponent and Obama Supporter, Late Sen. Robert Byrd Remembered for "Principle and Honor"

StoryJune 30, 2010
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Charles Ogletree

Harvard Law professor, special counsel to President Obama, and author of The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America.

Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia will lie in state today following his death at the age of ninety-two. Elected in 1958, Byrd served an unprecedented nine terms in the US Senate. In the 1940s, Byrd was a prominent member of Ku Klux Klan in West Virginia, rising to the position of "exalted cyclops." He opposed the desegregation of the US military and filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Byrd would later apologize, saying his association with the Klan was a sad mistake. In 2008, he endorsed President Obama for president. In 2003, he was a leading critic of President Bush’s push to invade Iraq. Charles Ogletree says, "We don’t judge people by how they were born, but how they lived that life in the long term. And here is a man, in the long term, who was a giant and a champion." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Byrd will be laying in state, the senator who just died at the age of ninety-two from West Virginia. And I wanted to ask you about his history and your comments. Yes, he was famous for opposing the war in Iraq, becoming very progressive at the end of his life. But in the '40s, he was a prominent member of the Klan. He rose to the position of exhaulted cyclops. He opposed desegregation of the military, filibustered the ’64 Civil Rights Act. He would later apologize. In 2008, he supported President Obama for president. Your comment?

CHARLES OGLETREE: Well, you know, it's a big loss to lose Robert Byrd, and then having lost, as well, Ted Kennedy, because it tells us that people change in their lifetimes. Byrd was like Strom Thurmond, Strom Thurmond from South Carolina, had a long record. They were like Thurgood Marshall, who grew up in the segregated South, and they expressed what they believed. But, you know what? They all were transformed in some way. And Robert Byrd, being strongly against the war, supporting Obama in West Virginia, Skip Gates’s home state, when West Virginia didn’t support him, told you he was a man of principle and honor. And my condolences go to him and his family. He is an American hero, just like Justice Black on the Supreme Court, a Klu Klux Klan member but became one of the most distinguished justices. We don’t judge people by how they were born, but how they lived that life in the long term. And here is a man, in the long term, who was a giant and a champion.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much for being with us, Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard Law School. His latest book is The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America.

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