In 1946, Byrd ran for a seat in the state House of Delegates, campaigning, according to the almanac, "in every hollow in the county, playing his fiddle and even going to the length of joining the Ku Klux Klan." He quickly renounced his membership but it would be years before he renounced segregationist politics -- in 1967 he voted against confirmation of the Supreme Court's first black justice, Thurgood Marshall.
None of this hurt him politically in West Virginia. He never lost an election. When a congressman retired in 1952, Byrd won the seat. By 1958, with Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House and despite opposition from the United Mine Workers Union and the coal companies, he won election to the Senate.
While in the state Legislature, he attended college but according to his Senate biography did not receive his political science degree from Marshall University until 1994 -- some 60 years after high school. While in the Senate, he went to law school at night, graduating from American University at 46 and receiving his diploma from the 1963 commencement speaker, President John F. Kennedy.
The years of protracted education made him zealous about knowledge. Even while campaigning in impoverished West Virginia, he infused his speeches with an old-fashioned, stem-winding oratory, calling on Cicero or Thucydides as needed, sometimes to the puzzlement of constituents.