Amazing Grace

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

This article appeared in the July 21, 2010 edition of The Jewish Press.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
- John Newton (1725-1807)

Senator Robert Byrd has died. The other day I saw a clip of him singing “Amazing Grace.” The sincerity in his voice was unmistakable. And why not? This hymn is his only saving grace. For unlike Judaism, Protestantism, Byrd found his faith in the Baptist Church, teaches that all sin, all wrongdoing, can be washed away “in the blood of Christ” by affirming one’s faith in the Nazarene as his/her personal Messiah. It is Divine grace and not good works that makes right the wrongs perpetrated against one’s fellow human beings.

Byrd is widely known as a former Exalted Cyclopes, the head of a Klavern (chapter) of the Klu Klux Klan. Byrd recalls that in the early 1940s he, because of his own political dreams, brought together one hundred fifty of his friends to form a Klavern, chapter of the KKK. The Senator solicited from each of them $10.00 for membership and $3.00 for a robe and hood, The Grand Dragon for the Mid-Atlantic States region came to his community, Crab Orchard, West Virginia, to officially open the chapter. According to Byrd, the Grand Dragon, Joel L. Baskin, was so taken with his organizational skills he suggested Byrd enter politics. Byrd was elected Exalted Cyclopes of his Klavern. The Senator stated that in his view the Klan was merely a fraternal group of “understanding people”, i.e. doctors, lawyers clergy, Judges, who never preached violence or prejudice against blacks, Catholics or Jews.

He is partially correct. The KKK was composed of ignorant, racist and bigoted individuals. However, it numbered in its ranks as Byrd states, many doctors, lawyers, clergy and Judges. Its influence was felt everywhere.

Without going into an historical presentation on the Klan, it suffices to say that its control of every aspect of southern society was frightening. The mob, the sheriff, the Judge, the prosecutor and the jury in most cases were either klansmen or had strong sympathies for the Klan. It was the scourge of Southern society and its members and supporters were in the forefront of opposition to integration. The Klan exchanged the lash of slavery for the hangman’s rope. Its burning crosses were seen throughout the south ushering in death, torture, and the burning of homes and Black churches. In spite of this, Byrd claimed that his own Klavern, chapter, never did any of these things – it never even held a parade. He did recall that at one point the chapter bought a wreath for the funeral of a member.

In 1948 Byrd wrote to Senator Theodore Bilbo, a Democrat from Mississippi, a notorious segregationist, regarding President Truman’s desire to integrate the American armed forces. He said 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 become degraded by race mongrels.” In that same year another respected, and until Byrd, the longest sitting Senator in the history of the United States, Strom Thurmond, ran for the Presidency on the Dixiecrat ticket in defense of “segregation forever.”

Yes, I do understand why “Amazing Grace” was Senator Byrd’s favorite hymn.

Last week while I was by the bedside of a relative at Skokie Hospital, I noticed out of the corner of my eye what was on the TV. CNN was broadcasting from the Senate chambers. And there, lying in state was the Exalted Cyclopes himself – Senator Robert Byrd.

Frankly I was sickened. That uneasy sickening feeling in my stomach only worsened when the very next day, I watched as President Obama eulogized the Senator, stating that while Byrd began as a racist, he repented his ways and became a supporter of the civil rights movement.

I understand that while our President is Black, he is not an African American that is; he does not bear the horrible collective scars of slavery and segregation upon his own soul. Yet one would have thought, out of respect for the African American community and as an American who abhors bigotry and racism, he would have, at the very least, not attended that macabre memorial event. For, in spite of what the President said, like other Southern Democrats who, with every fiber of their being, supported segregation. Byrd saw the handwriting on the wall. Ever the wily politician, he understood that if he didn’t get on the bandwagon of civil rights his career would be over. Do you really believe that a man who in 1948 wouldn’t serve in a fox hole with “race mongrels” suddenly decided he desired to eat in the same restaurant, send his children to the same school, swim in the same pool with “race mongrels”, with African-Americans?

Suffering is not the peculiar and unique property of the Jew. The story of slavery and segregation in the United States is one that we as Americans and as Jews should never forget declaring “Never again!” The death, pain, violence and torture, the dehumanization visited upon innocent individuals of color is something we Jews should empathize with. Ever etched upon my memory is the scene in the movie Rosewood, depicting the 1923 massacre of this community’s black population when, standing before the mass grave of Blacks, a young white boy points downward and says to his Dad, “look there is a boy.” His Dad responds, “Son, that’s not a boy, that’s a nigger.” What Jew cannot resonate with that scene? – That’s not a human being, that’s a Jew.

We Jews, sought out those who played a role in the “Final Solution.” for punishment. Pencil pusher or guard in a concentration camp who regularly beat and tortured his Jewish inmates, for us all were guilty and deserved retribution for their crimes.

What retribution did the Exalted Cyclops, the Kleagle (recruitment officer) of the KKK, Senator Robert Byrd receive for his active involvement and support of that demonic organization’s reign of terror? In life he was granted the singular honor of being a United States Senator, a leader of the Senate for half a century, and in death he was granted the honor of lying in state in the sacred chamber of the United States Senate, only to be eulogized by the President of the United States. Sickening!