The late Sen. Robert Byrd

WATERTOWN — Americans are living through a time of reevaluation concerning the treatment of black Americans and Native Americans, race relations, colonialism and many aspects of history in general. On the popular level, mass movements sometimes have led to the direct action of toppling statues of Confederate leaders or Christopher Columbus, while in other cases official deliberations concluded with local governmental bodies deciding to remove various statues. The legacy of the late Robert Carlyle Byrd (1917-2010), the longest serving senator in US history, has come under renewed focus along with that of many others, and here, Armenians have something to add.

Most infamously, Byrd began his political career in West Virginia as a leader of the Klu Klux Klan, recruiting 150 members to a chapter that he headed. In a 1945 letter to a racist Mississippi senator, he wrote: “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.” He filibustered against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and opposed the Civil Rights movement of the time, calling Martin Luther King a “self-seeking rabble rouser.”

Later in his life, Byrd apologized numerous times for his racist actions and ostensibly changed his political views, though some questioned his sincerity and suspected political opportunism. He also changed his positions on international affairs. A supporter of the Vietnam War, Byrd later opposed the contra war in Nicaragua in 1987 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

One thing though did not change. Throughout his career, Byrd was renowned for bringing federal money to his home state of West Virginia, to the extent that he was called the “king of pork.” He brought around $4 billion in federal money over some twenty years to his home state, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

Perhaps similar pragmatic motivations, along with the usual range of Cold War era international politics, that explain his closeness to Turkey. As the president of the Turkish Coalition of America, G. Lincoln McCurdy, said in 2010, “With the passing of Senator Byrd, one of the most dedicated public servants this country has ever seen, Turkish Americans have lost a friend and a champion.”

His first Congressional trip overseas included a visit to Turkey in 1955 and Byrd made further visits over the years. In 1978, Byrd pushed through the Senate the repeal of the 3 ½ year old embargo on US military assistance to Turkey. He worked to provide aid for Turkey in 1988 as a US ally with its “vital strategic position for the NATO alliance” and in a late 1990 visit to Turkey declared, “The United States does not have a more loyal, trustworthy and better friend and ally than Turkey.” He even wrote a poem “To the Turkish People” which he read in a goodbye speech at the airport during that visit (Turkey Today, October/November 1990).

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In the spring of 2000, he helped launch the Appalachian-Turkish Trade project, which became an official program of the US Commercial Service, designed to create trade and investment relations between Turkey and the 13 Appalachian states.

He called the US reaction to the Turkish parliament refusing to allow the US to use Turkish territory in the 2003 invasion of Iraq intemperate and bitter.

Most significant for Armenians was the key role Byrd played in scuttling a resolution for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide in 1990. His three-day-long filibuster defeated Senate Joint Resolution 212 despite the backing of Senator Robert Dole. Byrd parroted the line of the Turkish government about the genocide when he proclaimed, “We simply do not know for sure what happened.” He said, “This resolution asks the United States Senate to endorse a particular view of these events and to take sides in a historical debate” and worried that the resolution could “damage the stability of democracy in Turkey” as well as relations with the US. In what itself might be considered a racist view of the peoples of the Balkans and the Caucasus, he said, “Our actions on the Senate floor could fan the flames of the politics of yesteryear in the tinderbox known as the Balkans and in the Caucasus at a singularly inappropriate time when ethnic passions have ignited.” (see

Political scientist Julien Zarifian speculated about the complex set of reasons that may have led Byrd to take this position. One such rationale is relevant to his racist past concerning African Americans, though difficult to prove: the fear of setting a precedent for the United States in its turn to be subject to demands for genocide recognition and reparations from Native Americans and descendants of slaves.

Whatever Byrd’s motivations, he played the key role in scuttling the resolution and for this and many other supportive acts, ended up a hero to Turkey. The Assembly of Turkish-American Associations, which played an active role in opposing recognition of the Armenian Genocide, awarded Byrd its Distinguished Service Award (a “Gold Medal of Honor”) in May 1990 at its annual convention for his successful fight against the resolution (Turkey Today, July 1990).

He received various other awards later, such as the first Atatürk Peace and Democracy Award of the Atatürk Society of America in May 1995. At the award banquet he declared to his hosts, “Consider me an ally in your mission to infuse Atatürk’s guiding principles more solidly into both our societies and throughout the rest of the world” (Turkey Today, May/June 1995). After he died, the Turkish Coalition of America created the Robert C. Byrd Memorial Scholarship Program to honor Byrd.

Back in West Virginia, Byrd’s name is found throughout the state on everything from schools to buildings to highways he helped fund. Dozens of federally funded projects bear his name. He managed to get a larger-than-life Byrd statue erected in the state capitol while he was still alive, violating state law mandating that government officials cannot be memorialized through such statues until 50 years after their passing.

Statue of Robert C. Byrd in the West Virginia state capitol

While West Virginian political leaders have remained silent in general on this issue, a crack in the protective attitude of West Virginians who benefited financially from his largesse or worked with him has emerged recently. Bethany College this June removed Byrd’s name from its health center and its president, Tamara Rodenberg, declared “we recognized as a campus that the name of our Robert C. Byrd Health Center created divisiveness and pain for members of the Bethany community, both past and present.”  A petition is underway to remove Byrd’s name from Marshall University, where his name is on the Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center and the Robert C. Byrd Center for Rural Health, both constructed with federal funding obtained by Byrd. As of July 13, it received 1518 signatures out of its goal of 2,500.

If public monuments and names convey values and meaning, there is sufficient cause to remove Byrd’s name from public monuments and institutions due to his segregationist and racist past that brings dishonor to America. Armenians have additional reason to join their voices to this broad movement.

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