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Bipartisan Bigotry

by Robert W. Lee

After former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke ran a close second as a Republican in Louisiana's October 19th gubernatorial primary, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater quickly declared that Duke is "not a Republican, he never will be a Republican .... We don't like him!" Nevertheless, top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (ME), moved quickly to attach the racist KKK label to the Republican standard by contending that the Duke phenomenon is a natural outgrowth of the GOP's Willie Horton, anti-quota mentality. Actually, however, this century's most prominent "former Klan" politicos have been Democrats.


High Court Klansmen

Edward D. White served as a Democratic senator from Louisiana from 1891 to 1894, when he was nominated by President Grover Cleveland (and confirmed by the Senate) to the Supreme Court. He was Chief Justice from 1910 to 1921. In 1915, during a White House screening of the KKK-compatible film The Birth of a Nation he revealed: "I was a member of the Klan."

Hugo L. Black was a Democratic senator from Alabama from 1927 until his nomination to the Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. He had joined the KKK in 1923, when he was 37 years old, for, his apologists say, political reasons. He dropped out two years later and eventually became a leading Court liberal.


Presidential Racism

Harry S Truman reportedly joined the Klan for a short time in 1922, also, his defenders contend, for political reasons. Truman reportedly sought Klan backing in his race for a judgeship in Jackson County, Missouri. In Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan, 1865-1965, author David M. Chalmers writes: "Truman's own story was that when he was told to promise not to give any jobs to Catholics he angrily withdrew and got his money back." Another version cited by Chalmers "was that the future President did go through with his initiation although he was never an active member."

Active Klansman or not, Harry Truman's nearly lifelong record of personal racism is documented by his own published and unpublished letters, oral histories, and other documents on file at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. Dr. William Leuchtenburg, president of the American Historical Association and a professor at the University of North Carolina, is writing a book about our 33rd president. During his research, Leuchtenburg found that in 1911 Truman (who was 27) wrote to his future wife, Bess: "I think one man is just as good as another so long as he's honest and decent and not a nigger or a Chinaman. Uncle Will [probably Wfiliam Yount, the brother of Truman's mother] says that the Lord made a white man from dust, a nigger from mud, then He threw up what was left and it came down a Chinaman."

Truman continued: "[I] am strongly of the opinion Negroes ought to be in Africa, yellow men in Asia and white men in Europe and America."

According to Professor Leuchtenburg, Truman was the first president since Reconstruction to make civil rights a federal priority. Yet he continued to use racial slurs throughout most of his life.


The Senator Wore White

And then there is Robert C. Byrd, Democratic senator from West Virginia (and George Mitchell's predecessor as Senate Majority Leader). He voted against the nomination of new Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas on October 15th on grounds (among others) that Thomas had "mounted his own defense" during his nomination hearings "by charging that the [Senate Judiciary] committee proceedings were a high-tech lynching of uppity blacks." Byrd branded it "an attempt to fire the prejudices of race hatred."

Senator Byrd has first-hand knowledge of racism. When he was running for Congress in 1952, his campaign was nearly derailed when a tough primary opponent revealed that Byrd had once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. During a subsequent radio broadcast, Byrd acknowledged that he had been a member of the Klan from "mid-1942 to early 1943" because he was young (24) and because it "offered excitement." But he claimed: "After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization. During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan."

Byrd, who was praised for his "candor" and "forthrightness" regarding the issue, won the primary handily to secure the Democratic nomination. But just prior to the final election, a letter surfaced (in Byrd's own handwriting) which confirmed that his association with the Klan had been far more cordial, for a far longer time, than he had claimed. Dated April 8, 1946 (three years after his alleged break with the Klan), the letter was addressed to Klan Imperial Wizard Samuel Green of Atlanta. It stated in part: "I am a former kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan in Raleigh County and the adjoining counties of the state .... The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia .... It is necessary that the order be promoted immediately and in every state of the Union. Will you please inform me as to the possibilities of rebuilding the Klan in the Realm of W. Va .... I hope that you will find it convenient to answer my letter in regards to future possibilities."

So the same Robert Byrd who railed against Clarence Thomas for raising the spectre of racism and lynching was actively promoting the Klan years after he told voters he had severed all ties with it. He was nevertheless elected, as he has been six times since.

Clearly, when it comes to the Ku Klux Klan, the Democrats now pillorying Republicans about David Duke have a full hamper of their own dirty bedsheets. Admittedly, the former memberships of other public officials in the Klan should have absolutely no bearing on the significance of Duke's recent membership. But history shows that major media exposures of "racism" can be very selective. In the media's eyes, not every Klansman is the same.

 

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