In looking back at the long, full life of recently deceased West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, we can glean countless lessons. Here was a man who served in the Senate for over a half-century, a man who reportedly kept a worn copy of the Constitution in his shirt pocket at all times. This was a man who came from nothing -- just another poor boy from the Appalachians -- and ended up casting more votes and serving longer than anyone in the history of the United States Senate.
But while his life story and his political achievements were remarkable, the one thing for which Byrd will ultimately be most remembered, the shadow irreversibly darkening his legacy, is his involvement in the Ku Klux Klan and his efforts to curb Civil Rights legislation. Had Byrd's agenda prevailed, he would have been party to prolonging the greatest injustice in our nation's history. For a significant portion of his life, Byrd was a racist and a bigot and one can't, and shouldn't, be able to erase such a past from the history books.
However, there is also the well-documented silver lining to Byrd's story: he later saw the error of his racist ways, issued an apology, and, ultimately, found redemption in the eyes of the public. This enlightenment, this willingness to change, is, in my opinion, the greatest lesson we can learn from the life of Robert Byrd.
In my book High Points and Lows I have a chapter about my own racial fears as a kid. I come from the South, a region known, even today, for its latent racism. I was entering middle school in the early 90s, and while school integration had happened a quarter-century earlier, the concept was still trying to get its proper foothold. I was leaving my 95% white elementary school and moving into a middle school that would be exposing me -- along with all the other sheltered white children I'd grown up with -- to many varying ethnicities. The way I remember it, we were all very anxious about the move.
The story goes that I got lost my first morning on the way to the gym, where I encountered a young black boy who approached me with a disarming smile. He asked me where I was headed and I told him I was lost. Upon hearing this, he told me he was lost, too. Comparing schedules, we soon realized we were both headed to the gym. And as we walked together, discussing sports and school and favorite athletes, it occurred to me: this boy was no different from me at all.
That boy, Antoine Bailey, and I remain best friends today. It's a simple story with a profound message. I write in the book:
"I sometimes look at our crazy world and wonder why the seeds of prejudice still exist, why people can't see the folly in such thinking -- why some people fear those of a different ethnicity, those of a different socioeconomic standing, those of a different religion.
This thought saddens me, and I find myself lamenting how complex the fear of others really is, how difficult this type of fear is to overcome. But then I find myself thinking of that little boy pacing the halls of his middle school. I think of that other little boy, the boy of a different stripe, walking up to him and offering him a disarming smile. I think of how both boys admitted to each other that they were lost, how that admission helped them realize they were headed to the same place. And I begin wondering if perhaps overcoming fear isn't very complex at all, I begin wondering whether all we have to do is admit to one another how vulnerable we often feel. How, more often than not, all we really want is to feel safe. And then I begin wondering if maybe, just maybe, by simply admitting to one another how lost we often feel, we will finally realize, just as those two little boys did, that we are all headed in the same direction."
Sunday, when I heard word of Byrd's passing, I immediately remembered what Barack Obama wrote about Senator Byrd in The Audacity of Hope. Obama wrote of a meeting the two had in Byrd's office just after Obama was elected to the senate. In this meeting, Byrd said he'd been very fortunate in his life and had much to be thankful for, going on to say there wasn't much he would change. Then, after a pause, Obama said Byrd looked him in his eyes, and said, "I only have one regret, you know. The foolishness of youth..."
To which, after several silent seconds, Obama responded: "We all have regrets, Senator. We just ask that, in the end, God's grace shines upon us."
I find this to be an extraordinarily touching scene. A year after this exchange took place, Senator Byrd would go on to endorse Barack Obama for president of the United State. This after Byrd had once argued before the senate that people with Obama's skin color should not be allowed to eat in the same restaurants as him.
Obama was right about God's grace: we all ask that it shines on us. This is true for me; had grace not put Antoine in my path when I was lost, I may never have been found. But the point is, I was.
And the greater point is, so was Senator Robert Byrd.
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