Robert Byrd, the Democratic Senator from West Virginia who first entered the Senate in 1959, died earlier this morning at age 92. His office released a statement, "I am saddened that the family of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., tearfully announces the passing of the longest serving member of Congress in U.S. history." Byrd had been hospitalized a few days ago for heat exhaustion, but "more serious issues were discovered." Byrd had been in poor health in recent years.

The Washington Post says Byrd "used his masterful knowledge of the institution to shape the federal budget, protect the procedural rules of the Senate and, above all else, tend to the interests of his state." Politico's obituary leads with, "The Senate has lost one of its legends with the death of Robert C. Byrd, an orphan child who married a coal miner’s daughter and rose from the hollows of West Virginia coal country to become the longest serving senator in U.S. history."

However, Byrd's career began with the KKK. According to the NY Times:

Mr. Byrd’s political life could be traced to his early involvement with the Ku Klux Klan, an association that almost thwarted his career and clouded it intermittently for years afterward.


In the early 1940s, he organized a 150-member klavern, or chapter, of the Klan in Sophia, W.Va., and was chosen its leader at a meeting. After the meeting, Joel L. Baskin, the Klan’s grand dragon for the region, suggested that Mr. Byrd use his “talents for leadership” by going into politics.

“Suddenly, lights flashed in my mind!” Mr. Byrd later wrote. “Someone important had recognized my abilities.”

Mr. Byrd insisted that his klavern had never conducted white-supremacist marches or engaged in racial violence. He said in his autobiography that he had joined the Klan because he shared its anti-Communist creed and wanted to be associated with the leading people in his part of West Virginia. He conceded, however, that he also “reflected the fears and prejudices” of the time.


The Times notes how his perspective change—he filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 saying it hurt states' rights but "He backed civil rights legislation consistently only after becoming a party leader in the Senate."

His ability to direct billions to West Virginia, as head of the Appropriations Committee, also earned him the title "prince of pork" from critics.

Byrd also served in the House of Representatives between 1953 and 1959. His fellow Senator from West Virginia, John D. Rockefeller (D) said, "Senator Byrd came from humble beginnings in the southern coalfields, was raised by hard-working West Virginians, and triumphantly rose to the heights of power in America. But he never forgot where he came from nor who he represented, and he never abused that power for his own gain."