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Senator Robert Carlyle Byrd (November 20, 1917-June 28, 2010) once held the record as the longest-serving member of the U.S. Congress. Byrd was born in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. His name was originally Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died in 1918, and he was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Vlurma and Titus Dalton Byrd, in West Virginia. They raised him as their own child.

Titus Byrd was a coal miner and the family lived in several company towns, in houses with no running water or electricity. Robert Byrd’s education began in a two-room schoolhouse. He was the valedictorian of the class of 1934 in Mark Twain High School in Stotesbury, Raleigh County. He married his high school sweetheart, Erma Ora James, in 1937. Erma Ora James Byrd, who was born June 17, 1917, died March 25, 2006, after a long illness. Byrd worked in a gas station and a grocery store. He learned the trade of meat-cutting and by the late 1930s was working as a butcher for $85 a week. He worked in the shipyards in Baltimore and Tampa in World War II, then returned to West Virginia and opened a grocery store in Sophia, Raleigh County, and taught an adult Bible class. In 1946, he began a political career that would last for more than half a century when he was elected to the House of Delegates. At about that time he briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan, an act he later regretted.

Byrd was reelected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1948 and was elected to the state Senate in 1950. He won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952 and was reelected in 1954 and 1956. In 1958, he ran for the U.S. Senate, though he was initially opposed by both the coal companies and John L. Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers. He won the Democratic primary and the general election by solid margins, and was reelected by wide margins in each election until his death. He was the first senator to carry all of the state’s 55 counties in a contested general election.

On January 3, 1959, the coal miner’s son took the oath of office in the Senate chamber in the presence of three future presidents, Senators John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Richard Nixon. With the help of Johnson, then the majority leader, Byrd obtained a seat on the Appropriations Committee with the intention of securing funding for projects in West Virginia. In return he supported Johnson’s candidate, Hubert Humphrey, in his unsuccessful campaign in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary. In the 1950s and 1960s, he had a conservative voting record. While serving in Congress, Byrd, who never graduated from college, attended American University Law School at night for ten years. When he received his law degree in June 1963, President Kennedy, at his request, gave the commencement speech. Byrd was awarded a B.A. by Marshall University in Huntington in 1994, which he had attended briefly many years before. Byrd took care to master the rules of the Senate. He was elected secretary of the Democratic Caucus in 1967 and used the office to meet the everyday needs of colleagues. His assiduous hard work enabled him to conduct an unannounced campaign for the position of majority whip, held by Edward Kennedy, and in January 1971, with the deathbed proxy of Sen. Richard Russell, he was elected to that position by the Democratic Caucus. Byrd’s mastery of the rules and attention to the needs of fellow senators helped him to defeat Humphrey in the race to succeed Sen. Mike Mansfield as majority leader after Mansfield declined to run in the 1976 election.

By that time Byrd’s voting record was less conservative and closer to that of most Senate Democrats, but as majority leader from 1977 to 1981 and as minority leader from 1981 to 1987 he did not seek to set party policy. The powers of any leader are limited in a body such as the Senate where the conduct of business often requires unanimous consent. In 1987, when he became majority leader again, he established some legislative priorities and then announced he would leave the position after the 1988 elections.

In January 1989, Robert Byrd obtained the position he had been aiming for all along, the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee. ‘‘I want to be West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry,’’ he said in 1990, and in succeeding years as chairman and, from January 1995 to May 2001, ranking minority member of the committee he brought much more than that into the state. Notable projects include the FBI Fingerprinting Identification Center in Clarksburg, IRS offices in Parkersburg, the Fish and Wildlife Training Center at Shepherdstown, a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office in Martinsburg, a NASA research center in Wheeling, the National White Collar Crime Center in Fairmont and Morgantown, and the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown. This son of a miner looked after the interests of the coalfields, as well: Byrd obtained funds for miners displaced by the Clean Air Act of 1990; he co-sponsored the unanimously adopted resolution in 1997 opposing the Kyoto Protocol so long as it exempted developing countries; and he sought to reverse legislatively an October 1999 court decision against mountaintop mining.

But Byrd did not concentrate entirely on local issues. During his years in the Senate, he systematically read through the great books of the classical and modern eras and referred to them often in speeches. With the assistance of Senate historian Richard Baker, he wrote a two-volume history, The Senate 1789–1989, which he first delivered as speeches on the Senate floor. He responded strongly when he felt that the prerogatives of the Senate, the Appropriations committees, or Congress generally were being flouted. He was one of five members of Congress to bring a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the line-item veto enacted in 1996; in June 1998, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. In 2002, he made a determined, if unsuccessful, stand against the Bush administration’s call for a resolution authorizing war on Iraq, arguing that the requested authority was unconstitutionally broad.

In 2004, Byrd pushed for the passage of an amendment that established Constitution Day as a federal observance. All federally funded schools are required to provide educational programming on the history of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, the day the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution in 1787.

Byrd was elected to his eighth term in the Senate in 2000 by a 78 percent margin, his greatest ever; he carried all 55 counties for the third time. In 2006 he was elected to his ninth term in the Senate. He served as president pro tempore of the Senate, fourth in line to succeed to the presidency, from January 1989 to January 1995 and again from May 2001 to January 2003.

In May 2001, Byrd was named by Governor Wise and the legislature as the West Virginian of the 20th Century. Senator Byrd published his long-awaited autobiography in 2005. He became the longest-serving United States senator in history on June 12, 2006, and the longest-serving member of Congress as a whole on November 18, 2009. This record was broken on June 7, 2013, by Congressman John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan.

Byrd died at the age of 92. He was honored in West Virginia at a ceremony attended by President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and other dignitaries. Byrd was buried next to his wife, Erma, in a cemetery in Arlington County, Virginia. His congressional papers are in the archives of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University.


e-WV presents West Virginia Public Broadcasting on Robert C. Byrd

This Article was written by Michael Barone

Last Revised on October 18, 2023

Cite This Article

Barone, Michael "Robert C. Byrd." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 18 October 2023. Web. 12 July 2024.


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