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Published Jul. 5, 2010

The South, my birthplace and the birthplace of the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, always was and still is the most "enigmatic" region of the United States.

Southerners are a people of extremes and contradictions. Perhaps nothing epitomizes the South's perplexing character more than politics. "The basic ingredients of Southern politics have always been emotions and attitudes about race," wrote the late Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Sr. in his book, Let the Glory Out: My South and Its Politics. Gore knew what he was talking about, having represented the Volunteer State in the U.S. House and the Senate from 1938 to 1971.

Many scholars and opinion writers argue that the significance of race is fading in Southern politics. Perhaps. I think the late author Alex Haley had it right: "The Southern memory is of generations of life, of the good and the bad, the humor and the suffering from the past. The Southerner does not sentimentalize but only remembers."

Few Southern politicians understood the dubious utility of that memory and the politics of race better than Byrd, who died on June 28 at age 92. He competed for regional and national attention with many infamous peers: Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, Alabama Gov. "Big Jim" Folsom, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond and Georgia Sen. Eugene Talmadge.

Like his segregationist peers, Byrd had an essential gift: He was a demagogue in every sense of the term, at least during the early years of his career. "The demagogues," writes Alan Leveritt, publisher of the Arkansas Times, "have always understood that Southerners love the grand gesture."

Byrd, the longest serving member of Congress in American history, was master of the grand gesture, especially the racial gesture. In 1942, at age 24, he joined the Ku Klux Klan and quickly rose to the position of "Exalted Cyclops." He vowed to fellow bigots that he would "never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side. ... Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

As talk of equal rights for blacks emerged, with Northern Democrats going along, Southern whites sensed that the Old Confederacy was under assault. Byrd joined the Dixiecrat Party, a splinter group of diehard segregationists who left the Democratic Party in 1948. They opposed racial integration and fought to keep Jim Crow laws. Their slogan, which Byrd proudly proclaimed at meetings, was "Segregation Forever!"

Byrd's grandest gesture came in 1964, when he took to the Senate floor and delivered a 14-hour, round-the-clock speech opposing the Civil Rights Act. The legislation passed, as did other such legislation later on.

In another grand gesture, Byrd opposed the nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. He teamed up with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to try to derail the confirmation by trying to prove that Marshall, the first black to be nominated to the court, had ties to the Communist Party.

Then came the 1970s, when Byrd began to enjoy leadership positions in the Senate. He started to change, repeatedly apologizing for his racist past, calling his ties to the Klan and other such misdeeds "the biggest mistake of my life."

From that point on, he supported all civil rights legislation and antipoverty efforts. It was Byrd who proposed $10 million to underwrite a Martin Luther King National Memorial in the nation's capital. Although he never lost his conservative roots, Byrd sided with Senate liberals on most bills and issues.

What motivated him? This is what he told the Washington Post: "A leadership role is different, and one does represent a broader constituency." He had come to see himself as a voice for ordinary citizens, supporting vocational schools, community colleges and adult education. In recent years, the NAACP gave Byrd a 100 percent rating on issues important to blacks and other ethnic minorities.

This former Klansman was an early supporter of Barack Obama for president. As his health steadily declined, Byrd had a final grand gesture up his sleeve: Frail and confined to a wheelchair, he surprised many colleagues by being on call to vote for Obama's health care reform legislation.

Byrd, the one-time segregationist, changed for the better. And like his beloved South, he always will be an enigma.