Brief Thoughts on a Fallen Giant

The ravages of time are inevitable.  To suggest otherwise would be foolish.  Each man born onto this planet will one day pass, and the legacy he leaves behind will be how he is forever known.  For some, that legacy can be that of the greatest hero, for some the most wretched villain, but for most everyone that legacy is a mixed bag of opinions, varying widely depending on who tells the story.  Today I, along with many others, mourn the loss of a man whose life was most certainly the latter.

I have never lived a day of my life without Senator Robert Byrd representing the people of the state of West Virginia, a state I love dearly.  His tireless efforts, stretching further into his life than anyone could have imagined, have contributed to the lives of generations of those of us who call the state home, for the good and the bad.  But Senator Byrd’s politics aside, on this day it is important to remember the power of change, not just in our government but in ourselves.

As many of you may know, as a young man Senator Byrd joined the most despicable and wretched terrorist organization that our nation has known – The Ku Klux Klan.  His actions at the time horrendous, this learned behavior of white supremacy led him to take up arms against the Civil Rights Act, delivering one of the most shocking and appalling speeches in modern political history by way of a filibuster.  He stomped and spewed vile hatred with every breath, eventually stepping aside as the forces of progress became too strong to fight.

Then, something happened.

As time marched on, and the world became a better place, Senator Byrd came to a profound realization.  He took stock of his past, realized the error of his ways and began to change the man inside.  His public opinions and votes moved from those of the most deeply-rooted racist, to those of a man eager to understand what he misjudged and desperate to atone for his sins.  The fiery hate in his heart cooled, and his mind opened to the world around him.  While Senator Byrd remained imperfect, his steps toward changing his worldview helped shape the future of our nation and perhaps helped cool the spirit of hatred in many of his countrymen.

Once among the most vicious racists to ever set foot in the Senate Chamber, Robert Byrd died with a 100% rating from the NAACP, never backing away from his past and always taking any opportunity to apologize, and to help heal the wounds that he admittedly helped create.  As he evolved, so did the nation.  The state of West Virginia, once a hotbed of racist extremism, offered up 42% of the vote to Barack Obama in 2008… a statistic that would have been deemed utterly impossible on the day Byrd first took office in the U.S. Senate.

Attitudes change, and have changed in our region.  I once heard a dear friend remark, “When Martin Luther King was killed, I laughed and drank a beer.  I can’t imagine why I did that, and I’ll never forgive myself.  I was just young and stupid.”  It is that genuine change of heart, earnestly expressed, that prevailed through Byrd’s final years.  He witnessed the changes in his party, his state, his country and the world, and into his 90’s still championed civil rights and justice for all people.  In a society where almost all apologies for misdeeds begin with “I apologize if I may have offended anyone…” Byrd delivered unvarnished apologies, genuinely sickened by his mistakes.

As we mark today in history, a day when a giant has truly passed away, it is important to remark on what will truly be his legacy.  A legacy of change and a legacy of redemption.  There will be time to study his policies, time to argue over votes on a certain bill or the acquisition of a certain project.  There will be time to argue and debate childishly over issues that we don’t fully understand.  But today, just for today, it is important to remember one thing, the one thing that I believe Senator Byrd would want to be his legacy:  within all of us, no matter how sordid our past, lies the ability to change.  There is no soul without redemption, and that change may not stop at our own doorstep, but may in fact change the entire world.

Good night, Senator Byrd.  You will never be forgotten.

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One Response to “Brief Thoughts on a Fallen Giant”

  1. Kevin Says:

    Well done.

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