CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A longtime staffer for U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd will speak at this weekend's West Virginia Book Festival about his new book on the longest-serving senator in United States history.
The book, "The Last Great Senator: Robert C. Byrd's Encounters with Eleven Presidents," explores relationships between Byrd and every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was first elected to the White House in 1952.
David Corbin, who will speak at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Book Festival in the Charleston Civic Center, argues in his book that -- contrary to the accepted view of Byrd -- the senator was neither a conservative nor a racist during his early years in Congress.
"The very first thing he did was to support the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, which was further to the left than the AFL-CIO." The Taft-Hartley Act, which is still on the books, makes it harder for unions to organize.
"He supported federal aid to schools and other federal projects going to West Virginia," Corbin said. "He was not conservative by any means."
"In my talk, I will go into Byrd's philosophy," Corbin said. "He was not a liberal, not a conservative. God, country, constitutional law and West Virginia -- they were the bottom line of everything for Byrd."
When Byrd began serving in Congress, his was one of only 19 offices that had black employees, out of 535 members of the Senate and House, according to Corbin.
"He also appointed the first and second African-Americans to the Capitol police force," Corbin said, "and forced the Washington, D.C. Metro Police to hire more African-Americans."
Byrd was also a member of the Ku Klux Klan during his early political career in Raleigh County, something that plagued him throughout his tenure in Congress. He also voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and famously filibustered for several hours against the landmark civil rights bill.
In his 2005 autobiography "Child of the Appalachian Coalfields," Byrd said he had been "influenced by the talk I had heard ... which reflected the typical southern viewpoint of the time. Blacks were generally distrusted by many whites, and I suspect they were subliminally feared."
Byrd continued, "Looking back on the experience now, it puzzles me. I had good experiences with nearly all of the blacks I had known as a young man. I ... found most of the black families I knew to be kindly, law-abiding, and God-fearing. Yet, I felt this distrust and suspicion of blacks, in general, which was common to the times and place."