Skip Navigation

Transcript of interview with Robert C. Byrd for the film "West Virginia," September 7, 1994

Source: WV History Film Project

West Virginia Roll #255
Senator Robert Byrd Interview
Take 1, Camera 277

Q: Senator, I'm sure being here in Washington, far removed at sometime soon from West Virginia, you found yourself thinking about "what is it about West Virginia that is so special to you," tell me what you think the qualities are that make West Virginia a special place?
RB: God must have been in a very spendthrift mood when He created West Virginia. I don't think there's any place in the world like it and I've been in many places throughout the world. What is it that makes West Virginia so different? I'd like to think that its whispering brooks, its great rivers, its dense forest, its foggy mountaintops, its ridges as I can see them in the early mornings in the sun. Its first caressing the mist with its dawn light fingers, the hills and valleys, the blue skies, the clouds that seem to touch the mountaintops in Pendleton County around Spruce Knob.

Q: What about the people?
RB: The people I think are different from other people. Perhaps it has been because they have been isolated in the mountains.

Q: ...begin that thought again...bell ringing.
RB: Ok. To me, the people are different from any other people. And why do I say that? I just think they are different. The rest of the world seems to have in a way passed them by, and I'm glad for that because in this mad rush of life we seem to have lost the sense of our values. I think of the early Romans and their families. The family was the foundation of the Roman Republican because it was in the family where the ancestors where venerated, where the gods were reverenced. They were pagan gods, but nevertheless they were reverenced. And it was in the Roman home where authority was manifested and where respect for authority was taught, where discipline shaped the lives of the family members and that discipline poured over into the Roman legions. And one of the basic reasons for the successes of Roman legions was in that stern, strict military discipline that was taught in the home. When I grew up in West Virginia, when that kind of discipline was taught in the homes, that kind of respect for authority. The bible says: "Honor thy father and thy mother." We were taught that, and I grew up in a home, a coal miner's home, and my parents were foster parents in that people who raised me were an aunt and her husband. And their name, his name was Byrd, and I took the name of Byrd, having lost my mother in 1918 in the midst of the influenza epidemic. In that home where those two, I think of them as parents because I never knew any others, and they taught me to reverence God, there was a Holy Bible in the home, the King James version, I will not have any other version of the bible in my house. I don't care for any other version. The King James version is what I grew up on, and I was taught to respect my teachers and my elders, to respect authority, to respect the policeman, the soldier, the sailor, and to obey. I was taught to obey my teachers and my parents. Well, I wasn't unique in that respect; other children grew up respecting the law, they were taught to be obedient, they had discipline in our schools. So that kind of respect for authority and obedience to the laws and reverence for the Creator, living out there in the hills and on the mountains and in the valleys, close to the Creator, these things are ingrained, and they were ingrained in me. And I think other West Virginians speak with the same voice and the same memories. They had religious parents. You don't burn the flag in Braxton County. The population center, you don't burn the flag in Weirton where the steel mills are located. Or in Beckley or Raleigh County or Greenbrier County, or anywhere in West Virginia. People there are disciplined, we will always find some people who are not anywhere, but the people of West Virginia basically are law-abiding, they're disciplined, they expect to serve their country, pay their taxes, work, they're not afraid of work, they believe in honest toil from the farms in Greenbrier County to the coal mines in McDowell and Mingo, Boone Counties. They believe in the proverb which says, "Remove not the ancient landmarks, which thy fathers have set." And they be landmark, perhaps I should check on that end. ....BREAK....TELLS ANNE TO LOOK ON THAT (RESEARCH PROVERB)... "Remove not the ancient landmark which they fathers have set." ....BREAK

Q: That description that you gave of the West Virginian is almost exactly the description of the mythic American that this country was built on, the yeoman farmer, the sturdy woodsman, the hard working farmer of the plains. How is it and why is it that that has not been the image of the rest nation has had of West Virginia for so long? What happened?
RB: Well, I think that the rest of the nation and I don't mean to cast dispersions on the rest of the nation, to use your word, your words, I don't think it's the rest of the nation that views West Virginians like that; in the moon, it's a few snide people who look down on persons who grow up in poverty or live in rural areas. They get a little education and they think that they've learned it all. They don't understand that there are people in West Virginia who know more than they do, who got a better education than they have, who are more steeped in the history and literature than they are. The people who live next to the soil I like to think of West Virginians as being that kind of people.

ROLL 256, SOUND 256

Q: Senator, in your lifetime throughout the 20th century West Virginia has struggled, why has West Virginia struggled so?
RB: West Virginia, for the most part in my lifetime, has had its economy based mainly on coal, the smokestack industries, iron and chemicals, oil and gas, glass, pottery, but mainly COAL. When I was in the Legislature in the late '40's, in the early '50's, the number of coal mine employees in West Virginia was around 125,000. They produced something like 165 million tons of coal. I believe the latest figures I saw were perhaps 1992, a couple of years ago, seems to me there were about, between 20 and 30,000, something like 25, 26, 27 thousand coal mining employees. Now that doesn't mean necessarily the people who were actually digging the coal, coal mine employees, 26, 25, 27 thousand and they mined as much coal, something like 165, 164, 166 or 167 million tons as did the 125 thousand back in 1952. So the economy was based largely on coal. There has been a great change in West Virginia. There has said to be a trend, a shift in the economy and today we see more high technology coming into West Virginia. The Software Valley initiate, which I helped to bring about. The appropriations for projects and program in West Virginia which I have been instrumental in making. These things have helped move West Virginia away from that basic economy that was largely coal to a different kind of economy. We've lost some people in the process as machinery came to the coal mines but we are coming back now. I can remember when the population was 2 million and 5 thousand, I believe it was. Now it's about 1 million 820 thousand. So, we gain a little better of the population.

Q: Let me ask you about that point. When you, as you were making the transition from the legislature to the house here in Washington, the coal industry in the early mid-1950s had a steep downturn and it sent many, many families seeking work to Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati, what impact did that period have on West Virginians?
RB: Well, of course it depleted our wonderful state of some of its manpower resources. Those who remained were people who just would not adjust to change. Some were too old; others preferred to live in West Virginia and eke out a difficult living. But it gets back as I said earlier to West Virginia's isolation, it's mountain barriers, its rigorous winters, its terrain, all these things that helped to shape the psyche and the attitude and the outlook. All of the people.

Q: Why do people choose to stay within the face, the times of such adversity? Why do West Virginians have such a strong sense of attachment?
RB: They are ???? to those mountains, to those hollows, to the soil, the isolation there as I indicated earlier, has left them with their roots. And with their values. One has to live in West Virginia, one really has to grow up in West Virginia as I did to really understand the bone and the marrow of West Virginia and West Virginians. They have to attend the singing? conventions, the family homecoming, the labor union meetings, he has to understand what it was before the union came to West Virginia. For a person who lived in a coal mining home as long as I did, and as my wife did, that was before the union came. I knew what it was for my uncle who raised me to have to work from daylight to dark, to clean up his place in the mines, so I understood the sorrows that come to the coal miners, the joys, meager though they were. The Fourth of Julys that came and we were able to have one bottle of Coca Cola perhaps when it really a five-cent bottle of Coca Cola really tasted good. It has lost its flavor. But it was back then we weren't afraid of work; we had to work; we weren't used to much. I can remember when I saw the first radio, the first time I ever saw a radio was in 1927 when Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey, when Dempsey, the fight took place, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney and that was the first time I ever saw a radio. That was ??? in Raleigh County, but I didn't get to listen to the radio because there was only one set of ear phones and so the person who listened, put on the ear phones, Mr. C.R. Stall, who was the General Manager of our operations at that time, gave to those of us who were standing around with open mouths and open eyes and open ears a blow by blow description of that great fight, 1927. That was my first radio when I grew up part of my life I spent in Mercer County, at Wolfe Creek, up a hollow, 3.1 miles, no telephone, no running water. I attended the ??? in the fall and I walked to school, attended the little two-room school house. There was nothing like it; nothing like going to school in a one room school or a two room school where the teacher knows all the children, loves them all, and they all love the teacher. They respect the teacher and back in those days the man who raised me said, "If you get a whipping in school, you'll get another one when you get home." Discipline was different. Life was different, life was more simple. And my wife and I married, I was making $70 a month. And our first refrigerator was half of a grapefruit crate nailed up outside the kitchen window. We had two rooms; we weren't used to much; we didn't expect much. We thanked God for what we had.

Q: That seems to me to be a value system, in precious short supply these days?
RB: It is in short supply. You can talk all you want about crime and pass all the law enforcement legislation you wish and hope some of it does some good, but until and unless we get back to discipline in the home and worship at the grass root. Not a fanatical belief, but a simple faith in God, such as people had in West Virginia when I grew up, we won't ever get control over this crime problem, this disciplinary problem. I don't think we'll ever get back to that.


Q: Senator, let's go back to the 1930's, what was the impact of the Great Depression on West Virginia, your memories, what was the impact on your life, your family's life?
RB: Well, I'm thinking of the late '20's, when I lived at Algonquin in Mercer County. I went to school in a little two-room building, so did all the students from what we called the 'primer' through the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades. I sold the Cincinnati Post when I was a little boy and I saved up seven dollars. I put that seven dollars in a bank at Matoaka, West Virginia in Mercer County. The bank went under and I haven't seen my seven dollars since. That was just a little piece of the experience that millions of people had in those days. Then I moved to a little 26 acre farm over on Wolfe Creek. I studied at night by an old kerosene lamp. I memorized my history lessons. There was no running water in the house; running water was in a spring outside, there was a little spring house and in the summer I would go out and lie down on the damp ground and stick my face and my nose in the water and drink that cool spring water. There was an old crank telephone on the wall and in the evenings I would or on Saturdays and Sundays, sat up in a chair and ring my boyfriend down the hollow, it was about two miles down the hollow, two longs and two shorts and he'd answer the phone and so would everybody else in the neighborhood. Everybody would pick up their phones. As a matter of fact everybody would pitch in on the conversations. They'd listen in and join you. Then I'd get down off the chair on the floor and let the receiver hang down and play my fiddle. Play my fiddle. Ol' Joe Clark, Arkansas Driver, Cripple Creek, times were very hard. Those were the days of the two-cent stamp, a penny postcard. The hard road, 3.1 mile down the hollow, what we called the "hard road". My mom, she was my aunt, my mom I called her, I don't know anyone else, I'd loss my mother when I was a year old, she and I would bug the beans in the summertime, pick huckleberries in the fall. I'd take corn up to Ed Blankenship's mill, up on top the mountain, have it ground and put on my horse. He'd put it one the horse for me. We had one horse, Ol' George and so then my mom would take that freshly ground meal and make some good corn bread. Well, those were hard times, as I say we didn't have much, I never had an automobile in my family until I was in the West Virginia Senate. We didn't have much; didn't expect much. We lived close to the earth, close to the ground, close to the soil. I'd hear my mom praying at night after we turned down the kerosene lamp and went to bed. I'd hear her praying down at the other room. My dad, my uncle, was a very honest man, hardworking, here in most of my growing up years we lived in the coal mining communities, he was a coal miner. The Depression hit everybody hard. I can remember going down to the coal mine community store and seeing notices on the bulletin board that at the first of the next month, or at the next half, we referred to the month as being divided into two halves, each of two weeks. I'd see notices on the bulletin board that at the beginning of the next half, the beginning of next month, the wages for coal, loading coal, would drop to 55 cents a ton, perhaps 35 cents a ton and those were days in which some weeks there was no work, some weeks there were two days or three days in a coal mining community. I remember the banks that went under; I remember when I was a boy reading in the newspapers about the Depression. I remember reading about people of wealth who were jumping out of windows or were pressing a cocked gun to their temple, taking their own lives because they had lost everything. I remember a ray of hope there when Roosevelt was elected and things changed, hopes arose.

Q: The government came into West Virginia in a big way in the 1930's with Eleanore Roosevelt with Arthurdale and the resettlement programs and the WPA and government was viewed differently then. It played a different role then. It played a tremendous impact on West Virginia.
RB:Yes, ...PAUSE

Q: Senator in the 1940's you entered the world of politics in West Virginia in sort of a novel way. Do you know what I'm talking about. Tell me about that.
RB: I was a welder in the shipyard during the war; I welded in Baltimore and I also welded in Tampa, Florida. When the war ended, I was in Tampa Florida working for the McCloskey Shipyards. I came back to Crab Orchard in Raleigh County and went back to work in the meat shop there what was then called the Carolina Supermarket. It was then that I decided that I would get into politics so I called a friend of mine who was the conservator of the peace at the time I was a boy living at Stotesbury at Raleigh County and at the time I graduated from high school there in 1934, and at the time I married a coal miner's daughter. This man's name was Clyde Goodwin, he was conservator of the peace of Stotesbury. He took a liking to me I remember when I was trying to get married I had him sign some papers for me. I don't remember what they were, but I had to get someone like that to sign an application for a marriage license or whatever it was. He came down to my house where my mom and dad lived and signed those papers. And when he finished I said Clyde, what do I owe you? He said, "Well, it's worth two dollars, but you need it worse than I do, so forget it." So, some years later after the war had ended I called him on the telephone. And I said, "Clyde I'd like to get into politics. What advice do you have?" He said, well you're a poor boy. You don't have any, your father was a coal miner. You don't have any politicians in your families, your father is not a banker or a politician or a judge or somebody who could get you around among the politicos and help give you a lift, you'll just have to do it on your own, so start at the bottom. Don't run for county office. Get into the legislative branch. Run for the House of Delegates. So I filed in 1946 for the House of Delegates, cost me ten dollars to file, Raleigh County was entitled to three members to the House of Delegates so there were 13 of us in the race and I led in that race. So, I served in that 1947 legislature and again in the 1949 legislature and then in 1951 I served in the West Virginia senate, 1952 I was a member of the House of the Representatives here in Washington, representing the old sixth West Virginia district comprised of Raleigh, Kanawha, Logan Counties. And I was in the House three terms here, then I ran for the United Stats Senate. Well that was going back to the Forties. When I ran for the House of Delegates I was working in the meat shop shortly after coming out of the shipyards. Prices were very much lower than they are today; I didn't have an automobile in the family, we were poor, very poor. So, in that campaign a coal miner friend would come and pick me up in the evenings and take me around to meet the members of the county Democratic committee and so on. But things were taking off then. The war had ended. And business began to pick up. It picked up during the war as a matter fact. That was in the Forties. Then in the Fifties I came to Washington as a member of the House of Representatives, January 1953.

Roll 258

Q: You achieve a certain notoriety early in your political career as "Fiddling Bob Byrd". Tell me what the fiddle did for you as a politician.
RB: When I was in the seventh grade attending Mark Twain School at ??? there was a wonderful music teacher there, Mrs. W. J. B. Cormick?? She was the wife of the principal. She encouraged me to have my dad buy a violin. She wanted me to take music lessons. Prior to that I had come to know my future wife's father, Fred James, a coal miner. He played fiddle and on Saturday evenings and some evenings during the weeks at times he played the fiddle. There was a neighbor who picked the banjo, the old claude hammer style. So early in my life I came to like old time music, mountain music, old time tunes, fiddling tunes. So my coal miner dad took me to Beckley one evening in the back of a large old truck. While we were in Beckley, that was a pay day, a Saturday, he bought a fiddle for me. Bought the case, went to the music store there in Beckley and bought the case, we went to a music store there in Beckley and he bought the case, the violin, the bow, everything for something like 28 or 29 dollars. And so the next week I proudly carried that violin to school. Mrs. Cormick gave me lessons over the next six years, violin lessons, taught me violin lessons, and I came to play very well as a youngster there in the high school orchestra, played first violin. But on the side I liked this old time music, played by ear and so I began to dabble in that and came to love to play music and play for square dances. Then when I ran for the House of Delegates in 1946 I knew a lawyer friend up in Beckley who was a Republican. His name was Obbie Hedrick and he said, "Now Robert when you to go to play for the Women's Christian Temperance Union or the Oddfellows for the Knights of Phythias or the League of Women Voters or the Coal miners' Union, take that violin with you, play a tune. They'll remember you. Then you can make your little speech. You'll lead that ticket. That's what I did. Everywhere I went I took that violin and I played a tune and if I found two persons who wanted to hear a tune, I'd play it for them. I led the tickets among the members, candidates for the House of Delegates, there were 13 candidates, I led the ticket. I was an unknown, but with that violin, I opened doors. I could tell some interesting stories about opening doors with that violin. So that's how I 'fiddled' in that first race and won the House of Delegates.

Q: Let's jump ahead to the 1960's now when we're getting near the end. In the 1960's you were in Washington and Washington rediscovered poverty in America, poverty in Appalachia and the War on Poverty moved in in a big way in West Virginia. Tell me what your feelings, memories about that were?
RB: As someone who grew up in poverty, I didn't take very well to the kind of attention some of the, some of the kind of attention we got. There were people who came to West Virginia with their story already in mind and they went to the worst kinds of places where the railroad rails were rusted, the tipples were broken down and the huts and the houses were, the houses were not painted, some with windows gone, boards nailed up in the windows, and these people would come from New York City or Washington, D.C. or whatever, from the big urban centers and working for the big cosmopolitan magazines and periodicals and so on to draw this picture of poverty-stricken West Virginia. Well some of the areas were very poverty stricken, some of the areas were not. But it was always, it seemed to me, that they came with the idea of presenting the picture of a state that was a poverty-stricken state with its people that are running around barefoot and I resented it. We lived in hard times in West Virginia, but that has been the same through all of the centuries of the human race. There have been people who have lived in poverty. There are people right today in the large urban centers of the country who are in poverty. West Virginia is not alone in this respect and I kind of felt sorry for this kind of attitude and viewpoint on the part of those who came to write about my people in West Virginia. Yes, we were in poverty, but our people were honest. They were god-fearing and they worked hard; they wanted to work. They weren't looking for a handout. The people who were really in poverty, however were those who came, who had minds that were minds of poverty, they were empty minds. They were built upon portraying the sad lives of people who had lived in hard times, people who were patriotic, people who were god fearing, people who lived near the soil, and people who had roots and wanted to stay with the roots. So, as I viewed it, people who were really poverty stricken were those lame brains, highly educated perhaps, who came to West Virginia with a certain viewpoint and they took advantage of the people of West Virginia and portrayed them in that light. As a matter fact people of West Virginia are rich. They are rich in history. They are rich in their faith. They have an unshakable, indomitable faith. They are rich in their attitudes and their outlooks. Their family life, their simple, yet dignified way of living. They earn their bread by the sweat of their brow and so I determined a long time ago to show some of these, I call them so-called sophisticated intellectual egg heads, that a poor boy in West Virginia could rise as high as anybody else, who could learn as well as anyone else and who could appreciate a hard won education and who wanted to get whatever was his, whatever he was entitled to through his own work. They can't lay a glove on me. I've been in politics 48 years. Not a penny, penny fine, that wasn't earned. Everything according to the rules, everything according to the book. I have brought billions to West Virginia. What little my wife and I have, we've earned it, and that's typical for so many of the people of West Virginians. Those people who came to see West Virginia when the rails were rusted and the mining cars were empty and the tipples broken down, they are the people who never learned what real life is, what it is to live out where the wind laughs and murmurs and sings of a land where even the old who fair and even the wise are merry of tone.