Social media users have been sharing content online that claims Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden eulogized Robert Byrd, asserting he was the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). This claim is partly false. Though various prominent politicians eulogized Byrd at his funeral, the senator was never the grand wizard of the KKK and he has acknowledged and apologized for his membership during his youth.
One post reads: “When he died in 2010, former-KKK Grand Wizard Robert Byrd was eulogized by Joe Biden. Go ahead Facebook fact-checkers. Verify this. I DARE YOU!”
Robert Byrd served as U.S. Representative for the state of West Virginia from 1953 to 1959, and as a U.S. Senator from 1959, until his death in 2010 ( here ).
Other prominent political leaders such as President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton also spoke at the funeral. ( here )
The grand wizard is widely understood to be the highest leadership position of the KKK. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, was followed by “a descending hierarchy of grand dragons, grand titans, and grand cyclopses.” ( here )
Roland G. Fryer Jr., professor of economics at Harvard University, and Steven D. Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, explain the KKK membership roles in a 2011 paper called “Hatred and Profits: Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan” (see starting from page 11 here ).
They say that the highest level within the organization is “the empire” and the grand wizard (or emperor) is the ultimate leader of the group. Exalted cyclopses preside over local groups and organize activities such as monthly meetings. The structure can be seen on page 45 here .
Byrd was not a grand wizard of the Klan. He was, however, a former organizer and member of the KKK. A Washington Post article reviewing Byrd’s memoir explains these years in more detail ( here ).
In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 people in West Virginia to form a chapter of the KKK. Joel L. Baskin, the grand dragon of the mid-Atlantic region, arrived to organize the chapter. Baskin was impressed with Byrd’s skills and encouraged him to get involved in politics. Byrd was unanimously named “exalted cyclops”, which meant that Byrd was the top officer in the local klan. The responsibilities for this role included leading meetings and initiating incoming members ( here , here ).
Byrd later renounced his membership to the organization, although his early record in Congress on race and civil rights was mixed. For example, Byrd partook in a lengthy filibuster effort against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, here .
Byrd referred to his membership in a 2005 memoir: “It has emerged throughout my life to haunt and embarrass me and has taught me in a very graphic way what one major mistake can do to one's life, career, and reputation. Paradoxically, it was that same extraordinarily foolish mistake which led me into politics in the first place.” ( here )
A Democrat but conservative in values, Byrd decades later also criticized President Bill Clinton’s decision to push for the legalization of gay marriage ( here ).
Partly false. Joe Biden did deliver a eulogy for Robert Byrd. Byrd was never the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .
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