- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan member who remained silent when Sen. Trent Lott was accused of racism, will appear in a new movie in the role of a Confederate general who owned more than a dozen slaves.
Mr. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, plays Brig. Gen. Paul J. Semmes in "Gods and Generals," a Civil War epic due for release in February. Before joining the Confederate army, Semmes owned 14 slaves at his Muscogee County, Ga., plantation.
"It's not in keeping with his Senate position to be playing that kind of role," said West Virginia NAACP head James Tolbert. "I would have liked for him to take another role, but we know what Senator Byrd is. He's a former KKK member."
Mr. Tolbert and his branch of the NAACP criticized Mr. Byrd after a Fox News interview in March 2001, in which the senator said he had seen "a lot of white niggers in my time."
When Mr. Lott was criticized for praising fellow Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, a segregationist presidential candidate in 1948, some commentators complained of a double standard. Conservatives say Democrats such as Mr. Byrd who filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act, opposed Thurgood Marshall's appointment to the Supreme Court and vowed never to serve in an integrated Army are not held accountable for their records on racial issues.
Mr. Tolbert said the NAACP has long been critical of Mr. Byrd. "They want to couple Senator Byrd's comments with Senator Lott's. Our question is: Why didn't they do that a couple of years ago?"
Mr. Byrd has a small role as Semmes in "Gods and Generals," a $51 million Warner Brothers movie that opens Feb. 21. Although Semmes was just 48 when he was fatally wounded at Gettysburg, the 84-year-old Byrd was chosen for the part.
The senator spent a day on location in Fredericksburg, Va., in November 2001 at the re-created headquarters of Gen. Robert E. Lee, played in the movie by Academy Award winner Robert Duvall.
According to records of an 1850 census of Georgia slave owners, held at the Mary Willis Library in Wilkes County, Ga., Semmes owned at least 14 slaves that year. Librarian Donna Harrington said Semmes' father owned 30 slaves and that another Semmes relative, perhaps a brother, owned 41 slaves.
Semmes attended the University of Virginia, then returned to Georgia to become a banker and plantation owner near Columbus. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he was elected colonel of the 2nd Georgia Infantry and took his regiment to Virginia.
He saw action at Yorktown, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, Malvern Hill, Crampton's Gap, Seven Pines, Savage Station, Sharpsburg and Salem Church. At Gettysburg, he was wounded in the leg July 2, 1863. He was transported to Virginia, where he died of infection July 10.
"It was exciting to participate in a project that is helping to promote our nation's history," Mr. Byrd said of "Gods and Generals" in an interview with the Charleston Mail. "This film allowed me the opportunity to help bring American history to life, to spring it from the pages of history books into the flickering images of the movie screen."
Mr. Byrd has said his 1940s work as a KKK recruiter and organizer was a youthful indiscretion.
In a 1945 letter, Mr. Byrd lamented the proposed desegregation of the U.S. armed forces.
He wrote that he would "never submit to fight beneath [the American flag] 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, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide