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July 2, 2010

A Different Fourth

Roy Meachum

As Congress broke for the Fourth of July holiday, “Fiddlin’ Bobby’s” Senate seat sat empty, bedecked with funereal colors and adorned, it was pictured, by white roses.


Robert Byrd and I met when he was fresh to Washington, elected to the House of Representatives, notorious for his wicked violin that he played at gatherings of the West Virginia Society. Over the years our hair grew grayer and he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became the all-time champion for years he hung around.


The senator sprang from the coal fields. Barely literate, he taught himself how to read, not stopping at newspaper accounts or billboards. He learned the classics and ancient history, which he quoted on the floors of Congress, much to the consternation and bewilderment of highly educated legislators.


Reflecting the mindset of his constituents, he filibustered against Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Civil Rights Act. The separation of his native state had little to do with slavery; at the outset of the Civil War it seized the chance to escape from the tyranny of Richmond and low-land gentry. As West (By God) Virginians, they retained Southern prejudices, against minorities, curiously exempting the few Jews among them.


As you know, President Johnson signed the act into law; he dedicated the measure to the assassinated John F. Kennedy, who was too political to push for Civil Rights that he promised during campaigning. In the aftermath, the media informed the general public “Fiddlin’ Bobby” had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a decade or more before we met. He changed his racial outlook over the years, along with most of his countrymen. He showed genuine atonement by supporting the first ever African American presidential candidate, Barrack Obama.


Over the years, as we grew grayer, Senator Byrd grew into the moral custodian of the proud body he served in, along with a powerful minder of impoverished West Virginia’s business; few “deals” happened without the “Fiddlin’” senator’s approval. That’s how he shoveled so much federal money to his native state.


In the end, which came Monday, Robert Byrd emulated the 19th Century legislators he so admired; his gray hair reached his ears and his voice resonated with tradition, waxing historic rather than modern. Most people and commentators forgave his youthful sins in memorial to the distinguished statesman he became.


As “Fiddlin’ Bobby” could explain that this Fourth of July is different than the holiday we knew, as Depression-era youths. There was little patriotism lying around to celebrate when families lived on the government dole and downtowns were crowded with unemployed males – and shoe sole holes covered by pasteboard.


Independence Day was rescued by World War II and the brave battles young Americans have fought since, even in the present conflicts that cause no surging in national pride, except in the military’s men and women who uphold the red-white-and-blue.


West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd doubtless could find suitable oratory to praise the troops while he never approved of the misadventures that started with Iraq’s invasion and the proliferation of combat in Afghanistan.


Happy Fourth, anyway, although it’s different from my childhood.

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