One of the offshoots of the Black Lives Matter movement is a rekindling of the debate about who should be venerated in our public spaces with statues and names on buildings, streets and institutions. This debate was inevitably going to lead to Robert C. Byrd, long-time Senator from West Virginia who died ten years ago this month.
Bethany College announced last week that it was removing Byrd’s name from the college’s health center because, according to President Tamara Rodenberg, it “created divisiveness and pain for members of the Bethany Community, both past and present.”
The decision was rooted in Byrd’s well-documented racist past. He was briefly an organizer for the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940’s and he joined with southern Democrats in 1964 to filibuster the landmark Civil Rights Act which protected voting rights and banned discrimination in employment and public facilities, including lunch counters, hotels and theaters.
Rodenberg points out that Byrd’s positions on civil rights changed dramatically, but concludes “These attributes about Senator Byrd’s legacy, however, are the same ones that lead us to remove a symbol of the past and open our hearts and minds to equality, justice and equity.”
Rodenberg cites President Barack Obama’s heartfelt eulogy of Byrd where he said Byrd’s name was synonymous with “a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect.”
That is, at best, a confusing conclusion by Bethany. The school acknowledges the value of Byrd’s well-documented arc toward redemption for sins of the past, but then uses his remarkable transformation as a justification to take his name off a building.
Dr. Ray Smock is Director Emeritus of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education. He also served for 11 years as Historian for the U.S. House of Representatives. Smock, who is white, joined the civil rights movement in the 1960’s and detested Byrd for his filibuster of civil rights.
But later Smock came to know a different Robert Byrd. “Lincoln said of the Civil War that unless the American people could disenthrall themselves from slavery and the past there could be no union; there could be no freedom,” Smock wrote. “Senator Robert C. Byrd personally disenthralled himself of his own past and herein is the beginning of greatness. If this is not a positive lesson from history, then what is?”
And there is the heart of it. Robert Byrd started out on the wrong side of history, but he corrected his path. He acknowledged and apologized over and over for his mistakes, while increasingly tilting toward justice and equality.
Smock referenced Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson’s comments upon Byrd’s death where he wrote, “Byrd’s trajectory—from bitter segregationist to beloved dean of the Senate—is actually a hopeful, quintessential American story.”
Bethany College said their decision demonstrated the college’s “capacity to change, to listen and to learn.” Ironically, the name of the person they are removing from the health center is one of the best, and most public, examples of those virtues.