I’m surprised at myself, that Senator Robert C. Byrd’s death has made such an impact on me. Usually I take a fairly cynical view of government, the people who choose it as a career and the sycophants who toady up to them. I’ve hardly been Byrd’s adoring fan, but a recent project allowed me to get a glimpse beyond the marble cage of national politics to where the real man lived.
I felt compelled to make the six-hour trip to Washington DC for Byrd’s funeral. I kicked the idea around, knew it was crazy to go, that I had my own business to attend to. Then on Monday at 2 p.m., I decided on the spur of the moment that I must. My husband and I jumped in the car and off to DC we went.
I was glad we got there early. At about 8:45 on Tuesday morning, we were among the first in what would become a long double and triple line of friends, family, acquaintances, and maybe some like me, who were fascinated by this moment in American history. The line wrapped around the outside of the Memorial Baptist Church on Glebe Road in Arlington. We stood there until 10:15 in temperatures that were already approaching 1000 until we were allowed inside the church, which was large, bright and airy, but not showy. Sharp-eyed ushers knew we were strangers—nobodies?—and deftly ushered us into the balcony, which was fine with us.
The front rows on the left section of the main sanctuary filled up with dignitaries. I recognized Senator John D. Rockefeller and his wife Sharon, Governor Joe Manchin, Congressmen Nick Rahall and Alan Mollohan, and I’m told that some of the Kennedy family was there. In the center front was Byrd’s family, which looked like a small gathering of the United Nations. Byrd’s daughter married Mohammed Fatemi, a man of Iranian descent, and a grandchild married an Asian.
The rest of the congregation included a substantial number of African-Americans. In the balcony with us was a black man sporting the most impressive set of coiled dreadlocks I have ever seen. From my balcony perch, I watched as an older white woman made her way toward the family, her long gray hair piled on top of her head in the fashion of Pentecostal Holiness women in rural Appalachia.
The first person in Byrd’s family to speak was his niece, a daughter of one of Byrd’s eight brothers left behind in North Carolina when he was adopted as an infant by his mother’s sister and brought to West Virginia. Jassowyn “Jackie” Sale Hurd had never heard of Byrd until she was 18, when her mother enlisted the senator’s help in locating Sale’s father. “He was the only one of the brothers who ever showed an interest in me,” Jackie Sale said. In his honor, she sang an acappella version of an old hymn, “On the Wings of Dove,’ in a quavering voice, saying Byrd was like a dove from God to her.
I went to the funeral because I figured I would learn about a side of Byrd that wouldn’t be spoken of anywhere else, and I was right. The family told stories about their Papa, a man who, after Erma’s death in 2006, cleaned the bathrooms and mopped the floors.
Aside from his now-retired pastor, the hospice chaplain, and Senate chaplain, his grandchildren were the main speakers about Byrd the man. Erik Fatemi spoke of his Papa Byrd quizzing him about American history and civics beginning when he was five. Correct answers were rewarded with a quarter coin. “I learned at an early age the awesome power of appropriations,” he said. Byrd’s daughter, Marjorie Byrd Moore, read a poem Byrd wrote extolling the virtues of his girlfriend, Erma James, when he was 15.
At the funeral, I learned that Byrd and Erma were baptized in the Crab Orchard Baptist Church, in Raleigh County, West Virginia. I learned that one of Byrd’s favorite stories from the Bible was about Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus. Byrd liked the story so much that he chose a portion of a verse from it to be inscribed on his head stone:
“And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.” (JOHN 11:44).