The flag at the U.S. Capitol building lowered to half staff in honor of Senator Robert C. Byrd after his death on June 28.

‘May His Spirit Soar Forever Like A Catskill Eagle High Above The Heavens’

Robert Carlyle Byrd (born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jr. in North Wilkesboro, NC, on November 20, 1917), the longest-serving U.S. Senator and the longest-serving member in the history of the United States Congress, died at age 92 on June 28, 2010. Following his mother’s death in the 1918 Flu Pandemic, the Sale children, in accordance with mother Sales’s wishes, were sent by their father, Cornelius Calvin Sale, to live with other family relatives. Cornelius Jr. was adopted by Titus and Vlurma Byrd, uncle and aunt to the infant, renamed Robert Carlyle Byrd, and raised in the coal mining region of southern West Virginia. Byrd married his wife, the former Erma Ora James, who hailed from a coal mining family in Floyd County, Virginia, on May 29, 1937; she preceded him death in 1988. The Byrds had two children, Mona Byrd Fatemi and Marjorie Byrd Moore; two sons-in-law, Mohammad Fatemi and Jon Moore; five living grandchildren, Erik Byrd Fatemi, Mona Byrd Moore Pearson, Darius Fatemi, Mary Anne Moore Clarkson, Fredrik Fatemi, and Jon Michael Moore (deceased); and seven great-grandchildren, Caroline Byrd Fatemi, Emma James Clarkson, Kathryn James Fatemi, Hannah Byrd Clarkson, Michael Yoo Fatemi, Anna Cristina Fatemi, and James Matthew Fatemi

Sen. Byrd’s decidedly mixed legacy included membership in the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1940s, and opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (against which he filibustered for 14 hours) and opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, although he supported the Civil Rights Act of 1968. His tempered views on race resulted, he said, from the philosophies of the Baptist church he belonged to, although critics claimed his change of heart was more a matter of expediency, in order to move to the Democratic party mainstream and play a national role in the issues of his time. Nevertheless, he remained true to his altered perspective for the remainder of his long career, and as late as December 2009 took a final, brave stand in favor of West Virginia embracing a future that included less dependence on coal and more on jobs-creating clean energy alternatives, which brought him one more round of condemnation, this time from killer coal baron Don Blankenship, the disgraced CEO of Massey Energy, who claimed Sen. Byrd was doing nothing more than trying to curry favor with President Barack Obama, whom Byrd had endorsed for President in 2008. (See the full text of Sen. Byrd’s speech below.) Despite his failing health, Sen. Byrd was present for all of the votes during the Senate’s contentious 2009 healthcare reform debates, thus frustrating Republican attempts at a filibuster. When the final vote came around on December 4, 2009, Sen. Byrd arrived in a wheelchair and cast his vote by announcing: “Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy! Aye!,” referencing Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Senate’s most indefatigable voice in favor of healthcare reform in his lifetime. Sen. Kennedy’s wife, Victoria, in the gallery for the vote, wept upon hearing Sen. Byrd’s words. Prior to Sen. Byrd’s arrival, Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma went to the Senate floor to suggest Americans “ought to pray…that somebody can’t make the vote tonight. That’s what they ought to pray,” which led Dick Durbin (D-IL) to denounce Coburn’s statement and the Senate as well as having become “more coarse and divided. When it reaches a point where we’re asking people to pray that senators wouldn’t be able to answer the roll call, I think it has crossed the line.” (

At Senator Byrd’s funeral in Charleston, W. Va., on July 2, former President Bill Clinton eloquently addressed the issue of Sen. Byrd’s troubling past, properly framing the matter in terms of the whole of the Senator’s life.

Bill Clinton on Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s KKK association

President Obama reached for poetry and metaphor in assessing Sen. Byrd’s life and legacy, summoning the words of Herman Melville, at the end of Chapter 96 of Moby-Dick: “And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he forever flies within that gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than any other bird upon the plain, even though they soar.”

The President concluded: “Robert Byrd was a mountain eagle, and his lowest swoop was still higher than the other birds upon the plain. May God bless Robert C. Byrd. May he be welcome kindly by the righteous Judge. And may his spirit soar forever like a Catskill eagle, high above the Heavens.” —David McGee


Rest In Peace, Sen. Robert C. Byrd
By Christy Hardin Smith

The Sen. Byrd that you see playing his fiddle at the Grand Ole Opry is the Sen. Byrd that I remember most from my childhood. A man of energy and spunk, and a love of fiddle playing that transcended politics.

My first memory of him is him playing the Orange Blossom Special on the stage at the Wood County Fair. He was brilliant, with a twinkle in his eye that said he loved every minute of the challenge.

It wasn’t until after he finished that I found out the great fiddler on the stage was also my state Senator.

Robert C. Byrd served the state of West Virginia, first in the US House of Representatives from 1953 until 1958. He was elected to the United State Senate in 1958, and has served there ever since. Byrd ran for national office a total of 15 times, and never lost once.

Like many West Virginians, Sen. Byrd has always been one of my Senators, my entire lifetime. It will be odd to have someone else in that spot in the coming months.

What I’m hearing is that there will likely be an interim appointment from our Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, with a special election likely to follow. Since we had our primary in May, it’s unknown whether that will occur this year or next — that’s being debated internally at the moment, I hear.

Whatever happens, it’s pretty widely known that Gov. Manchin has interest in the position, and also that Alan Mollohan has some unexpected time on his hands at the moment and has expressed some interest, as well as Rep. Shelly Moore Capito from the GOP.

Sen. Byrd’s shoes are going to be tough ones to fill, given the energy — and pork from his perch atop the Appropriations Committee — he poured into representing WV.

Through the years, various groups tried to shame Sen. Byrd by calling him the King of Pork; he wore it locally as a badge of honor.

His relish for the role of West Virginia’s benefactor was apparent during his last campaign in 2006, when his opponent mocked Byrd for calling himself "Big Daddy" for getting money to fund a biotechnology center at Marshall University. At the party after Byrd’s resounding election victory, celebrants wore stickers that said, "Who’s Your Daddy Now?"

Byrd had his faults, certainly, including membership in the KKK and a vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a record-setting 14-hour filibuster speech against the bill, all of which he later regretted and renounced.

But while the cosmetic changes were going on, something was also happening inside the mind of Robert Byrd. Last year he spoke to C-SPAN about why he would vote differently on the Civil Rights bill today. He said, "I thought, well now suppose I were black, and my grandson and I were on the highways in the mid-hours of the morning or midnight, and I stopped at a place to get that little grandson a glass of water or to have [him] go to the restroom, and there’s a sign ‘WHITES ONLY’… black people love their grandsons as much as I love mine, and that’s not right." George Rutherford of the West Virginia NAACP told us he believed Byrd’s metamorphosis was sincere, that his conversion was as true as Saul’s.

Thanks to a scholarship from him when I was in high school, I was able to attend Smith College. He is truly a legend in West Virginia, where you can’t go a mile without running into something that’s been named after him in pretty much every area of my state.

Whatever his faults, and they were many, he was devoted to three things in his lifetime:  his family, especially his wife Erma; the great state of West Virginia; and history’s lessons of how power, politics, law and the constitution intersect.  His mastery of Senate rules was legendary, but what isn’t as widely known is that he taught that history to incoming Senators for years to introduce them, informally behind the scenes, to the intersection of rule intricacies and to Senate history.

He was an outspoken champion of the balance of powers within the framework of our government. When asked how many presidents he had served under, Byrd once famously replied, "’None,’ was Mr. Byrd’s reply, Mr. Sarbanes said. ‘I have served with presidents, not under them.’”

Rest in peace, Sen. Byrd.

Christy Hardin Smith is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children. Email: Her tribute to the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd was first published at The Seminal community site of (




The Fiddlin’ Senator

True to his devotion to his beloved West Virginia, the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd stayed close to its mountain music by playing it himself. An accomplished fiddler, he often entertained friends, family, Senate colleagues (who, he said, “like my fiddling better than my speaking”) and his fellow West Virginians with old-time fiddle tunes. In 1978 he cut an album for the County label, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd—Mountain Fiddler, accompanied by an outstanding band comprised of Doyle Lawson on guitar, James Bailey on banjo and Spider Gilliam on bass. In the wake of Sen. Byrd’s death, County has announced plans to reissue the album on CD. A couple of tracks from the album are presented below.

Senate Historian Donald Ritchie described the Senator as a “very spirited” fiddler. In addition to his 1978 album, Sen. Byrd appeared as a guest on Hee Haw, and in October 2008 appeared at the Grand Ole Opry to receive the Dr. Perry F. Harris Distinguished Fiddler Award. The video montage accompanying Christy Hardin Smith’s remembrance above includes clips of Sen. Byrd performing at the Opry. He also recorded mountain tunes for the Library of Congress.

To’s Marsha Dubrow, Ritchie said Sen. Byrd “was a vey good fiddler in his time, very spirited. In West Virginia, he’d campaign by getting on the back of a truck and fiddling, then people would gather around.”

In addition, Ritchie noted that Sen. Byrd delivered more than 100 speeches on the history of the Senate, later published in a four-volume history, The Senate, 1789-1989 (Government Printing Office).

"One of those 100 speeches he delivered between 1980 and 1989 was on the Senate in literature and film. He critiqued what novelists and moviemakers got right and what they got wrong, like Parliamentary procedure," Ritchie told Dubrow.

The speech included a 1927 novel, "Senator Solomon Spiffledink"; Mark Twain's "The Gilded Age" — based on a real senator and actual events; and Dashiell Hammett’s "The Glass Key.” Hammett, during the anti-Communism "Red Scare," refused to name names to Joe McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and went to prison. "This was one case where the truth was stranger than fiction," Byrd said.

He included the film The Senator Was Indiscreet, as well as the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Advise and Consent.

(Marsha Dubrow’s entire column on Sen. Robert Byrd is at

Sen. Robert C. Byrd—Mountain Fiddler: ‘Come Sundown She’ll Be Gone’

Sen. Robert C. Byrd—Mountain Fiddler: ‘Roving Gambler’


At The End, Speaking Truth To Big Coal
By David McGee

Long a staunch supporter of the West Virginia coal industry, Sen. Robert C. Byrd had a late-life change in perspective that resulted in one of the bravest stands he made in his long career.  In December 2009 he concluded the coal industry needed to embrace the realities of the time and move forward with “an open and honest dialogue about coal's future in West Virginia” that acknowledges  the impact coal use is having on climate change as well as its diminishing returns economically for his home state. According to a report from Downstream Strategies, coal costs West Virginia more—$97.5 million more in 2009—than it benefits the state.  Not least of coal’s burgeoning problems: the remaining coal seams are thinner and fewer in number, and the advent of mountaintop removal mining, in addition to destroying the environment and endangering the lives of any community near where it is occurring, is reducing, not creating, jobs.

Sen. Byrd did not express these feelings in a void. He went public on December 3, in a speech titled “Coal Must Embrace the Future,” which was posted at The Huffington Post on December 9. The full text of Sen. Byrd’s speech is available below, and audio is available at

How effective was Sen. Byrd’s speech? Effective enough that killer coal baron Don Blankenship, CEO of the reviled Massey Energy, attacked Sen. Byrd (whom he admitted he had never met). As Gil McClanahan reported in The State Journal, Blankenship lashed out at Sen. Byrd during the Massey Christmas Extravaganza in Kentucky, claiming people should know government is out to get them and offering an hysterical fantasy about the Environmental Protection Agency: "EPA stands for 'Equal Poverty for All,'" [Blankenship] said. "They don't appreciate coal. In fact, they think coal is a bad thing. They're exporting our jobs and destroying our economy and telling us not to be worried about it."

Further, Blankenship claimed Byrd was "riding the fence" with regard to his feelings about the coal industry, the better to curry favor with President Barack Obama.

"(President Barack) Obama's expecting their support, meaning Rockefeller, Byrd, Rahall, and they're sort of caught between what they know is best for West Virginia and having all this favor with Obama," said Blankenship.

Right up to the end, Sen. Byrd was making enemies in all the right places. Though it could be argued he had nothing to lose in speaking truth to Big Coal in his twilight years, it could be argued as well that the need for those in power to speak truth to Big Coal has never been more urgent than at the present time. By any measure, what Sen. Byrd had to say on December 3, 2009, was a signal moment in the push for clean energy alternatives to fossil fuel power.


Artist’s conception of a high-altitude wind-power electrical generator (image:

Coal Must Embrace The Future
By Sen. Robert C. Byrd

‘The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation’

The full text of Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s speech, “Coal Must Embrace the Future,” as posted at The Huffington Post, December 4, 2009 (

For more than 100 years, coal has been the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Even today, the economies of more than 20 states depend to some degree on the mining of coal. About half of all the electricity generated in America and about one quarter of all the energy consumed globally is generated by coal.

Change is no stranger to the coal industry. Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800's. Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And change is undeniably upon the coal industry again. The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia's elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities. I share those concerns. But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal's future in West Virginia.

Let's speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state's ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia's benefit. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away.

Let's speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality.

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry's demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible. It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light. To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say "deal me out." West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

The 20 coal-producing states together hold some powerful political cards. We can have a part in shaping energy policy, but we must be honest brokers if we have any prayer of influencing coal policy on looming issues important to the future of coal like hazardous air pollutants, climate change, and federal dollars for investments in clean coal technology.

Most people understand that America cannot meet its current energy needs without coal, but there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Congress to the mountaintop removal method of mining it. We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground—but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy. As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.

I have spent the past six months working with a group of coal state Democrats in the Senate, led by West Virginia native Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), drafting provisions to assist the coal industry in more easily transitioning to a lower-carbon economy. These include increasing funding for clean coal projects and easing emission standards and timelines, setting aside billions of dollars for coal plants that install new technology and continue using coal. These are among the achievable ways coal can continue its major role in our national energy portfolio. It is the best way to step up to the challenge and help lead change.

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment. Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators operating in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making significant investments to prepare.

The future of coal and indeed of our total energy picture lies in change and innovation. In fact, the future of American industrial power and our economic ability to compete globally depends on our ability to advance energy technology. The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.

Fortunately, West Virginia has a running head start as an innovator. Low-carbon and renewable energy projects are already under development in West Virginia, including: America's first integrated carbon capture and sequestration project on a conventional coal-fired power plant in Mason County; the largest wind power facility in the eastern United States; a bio-fuel refinery in Nitro; three large wood pellet plants in Fayette, Randolph, and Gilmer Counties; and major dams capable of generating substantial electricity.

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

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