Monday, June 28, 2010

That Final Statement

When you die, what will your obituary say?

Will you even have an obituary worth noting?

I thought about obituaries, and their role as the final public explanation of life, as I read the lengthy obituary of Sen. Robert Byrd in the New York Times. Byrd, one of West Virginia's senators for more than 50 years, died over the weekend and the Times took time to reflect on his lengthy and distinguished career.

Byrd was a Senate stalwart, a largely self-educated man who rose from humble beginnings to control the halls of legislative power. His life was one dedicated to upholding what he saw as the purpose of the Senate, and he played a role in many of the decisions that have defined our country over the past half century. He was the epitome of a mover and shaker, and his obituary takes care to give us a detailed picture of  how much accomplished.

Byrd was also a former Klansman.

This information is introduced some time around paragraph 20 of his obituary. It is followed by a fairly brief description of how Byrd joined the Klan, and how he later disavowed the group and its teachings.

Byrd's former Klan affiliations were known by many. On several occasions, in his autobiography and other forums, Byrd lamented what he called a foolish decision to join the group. He claimed he joined because it could provide him with political and social capital in the South. Byrd apologized many times for his transgressions, and often wondered aloud how long he would be punished for his mistake.

For most folks that has been enough. They refused to allow his Klan tenure, however regrettable, to overshadow everything else he had done with his life. Yes, Byrd opposed the Civil Rights act of '64 and the Voting Rights Act of '70, but he said that was more about protecting state's rights than hating Negroes. He also stressed that his branch of the Klan didn't physically harm Negroes, and directed most of its vitriol at Communists rather than black folks.

This was a distinction made in the article.

As, I read Byrd's obituary, I thought about how the world decides who you are, and what your life meant. For most of us, myself included, there will be no hoopla when we leave this world. Our families will grieve, but few folks outside of our immediate circle will take notice. It doesn't mean our lives were immaterial, it just means that we may have toiled in obscurity.

Byrd lived his life in the public, and consequently his successes and foibles have become public fodder. But, I found it telling that his stint as a Klansman, no matter how far it resided in his past, was not seen as something that needed to be included right up top when we considered who he was as a man. The Times decided that his tenure in the Klan was just a small and fairly inconsequential part of who he was.

Obviously, I disagree.

I believe in forgiveness. I believe in moving forward and moving on. But, no matter what Byrd accomplished in his life, and make no mistake he accomplished a lot, I think the fact that for a nice chunk of his life Byrd sympathized with the Klan is incredibly important. Even more telling was that Byrd used the Klan as a means to get into politics, so either his entire bid for public office was shaped by the Klan's beliefs, or he was a self-serving opportunist willing to align himself with anyone to get ahead.

I don't think the man's entire obituary should have been dedicated to the Klan, but I do think his time in the group merited mention early in the article, if not in the lede, or first paragraph. Joining the Klan, America's most well-known and deadly terrorist organization, is not a small thing. It's not something that should be just mentioned quickly and moved past. It's a defining piece of any man's legacy.

I know that when Al Sharpton dies, Tawana Brawley will be mentioned before the 20th paragraph because his mistake in that instance has defined him in many people's eyes.

I know when Michael Vick dies, dogs will be mentioned early in the obituary. When Kobe Bryant dies, the incident in Eagle, Colorado and his longstanding enmity with Shaquille O'Neal will be mentioned quickly. Just as Michael Jackson's issues with children were mentioned high in his obituary.

Some folks are never truly allowed to escape their pasts. No matter how fast they run or how much they achieve, those mistakes will forever feature prominently in any story told about their lives. They will not be swept aside to discuss other "more important" matters when folks are considering their lives in retrospect.

I'm not sure how Byrd earned that privilege.



macon d said...

I'm not sure how Byrd earned that privilege.

I think you actually put your finger right on it, especially with the contrasting list of sure-to-be-well-remembered black misdeeds. That privilege is a really good example of "white privilege." (But, like us other white people, he didn't "earn" it.)

Determination said...

great post... thought provoking... you're right... Byrd was given a second chance to improve his image... many of us are not provided the same opportunity...

Imhotep said...

Byrd talks about his youthful indiscretion with his involvement in the klan, as if he’s talking about shoplifting or doing time in juvie for joy riding. He was a high ranking member of a covert, state sponsored terrorist organization, whose primary objective was to oppress, intimidate, and terrorize Black people. He was never so bothered by his youthful indiscretion to discard the fruit it yielded. It was the connections and associations that he formed in the klan that paved the way for his long run in public office. He repaid his benefactors by opposing the integration of the armed forces, opposing the 1964 CRA and the 1970 Voting Rights Act, very klan like of him.

By going into the senate, he never left the klan. There are fewer bodies more segregated that the U.S. Senate. There have been four Black people to ever sit in the U.S. Senate, in its over two hundred year history. And with Roland Burris on his way out, it will be back to business as usual.

The sign on the chamber door reads, In loving memory of Robert Byrd, Blacks need not apply

Big Man said...


I've always felt the same way about Byrd's entry into the Senate halls.

For example, the obituary notes that Byrd's political foes brought up the Klan stuff during his first election, as if the Klan thing was a negative. It's only as you continue reading that you learn that Byrd won by a LANDSLIDE despite the Klan affiliations.

Or, Byrd says his branch of the Klan didn't physically hurt black folks. That's like saying your branch of the Taliban was only involved with fundraising.

It doesn't matter. You are a former terrorist, who refused to be directly involved with your initial terrorist cell eventually, but still managed to reap the benefits of that association. I just found it interesting that people could see Byrd's work at bring jobs to West Va, or his efforts at maintaining the traditions of the Senate or his relationship with Ted Kennedy as being of equal or more importance then his time in the Klan. I'm not saying those things aren't important, I"m saying they are not on the same level as being a former terrorist.

Redbonegirl97 said...

Shows that a second chance can make a real difference. And dude played a mean fiddle.

Peace, Love and Chocolate

Big Man said...

Chris Brown is hoping to get some of Robert Byrd's magic. From the LA times music blog:

Chris Brown's actions, however, shattered his image and destroyed the main function of his music. It's hard to imagine how he can move back into his role as a teen dream, now that he's admitted doing something no young woman would want done to her. (Not to mention the parents of girls who might have crushes on this handsome and smooth, if eager to reform, criminal.) The BET performance was problematic precisely because it felt like a bid to be washed clean, and because the audience members shown seemed ready with the baptismal water. Whatever Brown does, however sincerely remorseful he is, he can't go back. He will forever be in recovery."

The Girl with the Monkey Mind said...

That's real.

I'm not sure how Byrd earned that privilege.

Anonymous said...

Right and the Nazis were just 'misunderstood' and Hitler was just a self-hating little guy with self-esteem issues. And if you believe THAT I got a bridge in Brooklyn dirt cheap!! I hear you Big Man but the biggest problem with this is OTHER BLACK PEOPLE. Particularly ones in the media and black comedians who seem to get some perverse delight in doing everything humanly possible to make live that much more miserable for other black folks. Just recently I was watching 'Chelsea Lately'[don't ask]and they were discussing Chris Kleins' DUI and Chelsea mentioned his dog was with him. Then some pissant comedian by the name of Finesse Mitchell starting yacking about Michel Vick when it had absolutely NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CONVERSATION! That's where most of the problem is and you mentioned Micheal I find it verrrrrry interesting that the Catholci church has had pedophile accusations of the WAZOO and have been harboring those lowlifes fro decades but I have yet to hear a PEEP about them. Especially from comedians we are our own worst enemy and it's never more true for something like this.

Dirty Red said...

Good post.
I totally agree. Being a member of the Klan should have been in the first sentence of his damn obituary. If it was not for his ties to that organization, he would have never been a damn senator. But I guess it is the same thing as White people "forgetting" how this country of ours became "their" country, given to them by "their" God.
The hypocrisy of our democracy.

Raving Black Lunatic