The longest-serving member in the congressional history, Robert Byrd was a Democratic U.S. Senator from 1959-2010. Enamored of the Ku Klux Klan parades that he witnessed in his youth, Byrd joined the KKK in 1942 and was eventually elected Exalted Cyclops of his local chapter. In the 1940s, Byrd was a rising star and active recruiter for the Klan. In 1946, he wrote to Theodore Bilbo, a now-notorious Mississippi politician who advocated violence against African Americans who sought equality. In the letter, Byrd stated unequivocal support for both Bilbo and the KKK. The Klan is needed today as never before, Byrd wrote, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia and in every state in the nation. In 1952, Byrd broke ties with the Klan. In that same year, he entered politics and ran for a seat in the House of Representatives.
Byrd's early votes in Congress reflected his roots in Southern anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic teachings. Byrd denounced civil rights leader Martin Luther King as a self-seeking rabble rouser. Byrd maintained his pro-segregation stance into the mid-1960s. He and other Southern Democrats attempted to obstruct the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by launching a filibuster to prevent a vote on the measure. As the floor manager for the pro-segregationist wing of his party, Byrd argued that the authors of the Declaration of Independence “did not intend that these words should be taken literally to be true” when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” Byrd continued: Between two individuals, as between two races, there are broad differences.”