Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden‘s eulogy of the late Senator Robert Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, has resurfaced amid outrage over President Donald Trump‘s recent failure to explicitly condemn white supremacists.
Biden, who has faced criticism in the past over comments he made about working with segregationists, gave the eulogy for Byrd at his funeral in 2010. “Bishop, Reverend Clergy, Mona and Marjorie, the entire Byrd family—if you didn’t already know it, it’s pretty clear the incredible esteem your father was held in,” Biden said in his opening remarks.
Byrd, a member of the Democratic Party, served as a U.S. Senator from West Virginia for more than 50 years, from 1959 until his death. The politician’s past was not without controversy, however.
In the early 1940s, Byrd recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, a designated hate group, The Washington Post reported in 2005. In his autobiography Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields, Byrd wrote that he viewed his leadership in the Klan as a helpful platform from which to launch his political career.
The late senator worked to minimize his direct involvement with the Klan, explaining it as a youthful indiscretion, according to the Post. He described his chapter of the hate organization as a fraternal group of elites who never engaged in or preached violence against Black people, the Post reported.
Byrd acknowledged in his book that his Klan membership 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.”
The senator, who once filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for more than 14 hours in the Senate, claimed it was his membership in the Baptist church that marked “the beginning of big changes in me,” according to the Post.
Experts have labeled Byrd’s desire to “be influential in the Senate” as a primary motivator for his apparent change in ideology. James Tolbert, president of the West Virginia Chapter of the NAACP in 2005, told the Post that Byrd overcame his past by slowly embracing more progressive social views and owning up to his mistakes.
“I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had no place in America. I apologized a thousand times…and I don’t mind apologizing over and over again,” Byrd said in 2005. “I can’t erase what happened.”
Five years later during the senator’s eulogy, Biden described Byrd as “fiercely devoted to his principles,” a “friend,” “mentor” and a “guide”—comments which have brought Biden fresh criticism as he enters the final stretch of his campaign for president.
“In case you forgot, Joe Biden gave the eulogy at Robert Byrd’s funeral. He was a klansman recruiter who filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights act for 14 hours,” Ryan Fournier, co-chair of Students for Trump, tweeted Thursday. “Biden call [sic] him a ‘mentor’ and a ‘friend.’ Joe is the racist.”
Former President Barack Obama, who also spoke at Byrd’s funeral, used similar language when describing the late senator: “He was a Senate icon. He was a Party leader. He was an elder statesman. And he was my friend. That’s how I’ll remember him.”
Neither Obama nor Biden’s speeches ever mentioned Byrd’s history with the Klan, but Obama hinted at Byrd’s controversial past twice. The first time Obama visited Byrd, the senator told him, “‘There are things I regretted in my youth. You may know that.’ And I said, ‘None of us are absent some regrets, senator. That’s why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.'”
Obama went on to praise Byrd for possessing “that quintessential American quality, and that is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen a capacity to be made more perfect.”
Newsweek contacted the Biden campaign for comment but did not hear back in time for publication.
Fournier’s criticisms come amid mounting disapproval of Trump, who, during the first presidential debate Tuesday, did not unequivocally condemn white supremacists when debate moderator Chris Wallace directly asked.
“But are you willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists…Are you prepared to specifically do that?” Wallace asked Trump.
“Sure, I’m prepared to do that,” Trump replied. “But I would say almost everything I see is from the left-wing, not from the right-wing. If you look, I’m willing to do anything. I want to see peace.”
After both Wallace and Biden pressed him to again condemn white supremacists, Trump responded: “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by,” evoking the name of a right-wing group which he later denied having any knowledge of. “But I’ll tell you what: Somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left. Because this is not a right-wing problem—this is a left-wing problem.”