Sen. Charles Schumer’s proposal in recent days to rename the Russell Senate Office Building after Sen. John McCain has stirred fresh debate over the removal or renaming of historical markers and monuments.
Making such decisions is a complex task, requiring nuance and empathy. No historical figure can satisfy every moral requirement of the present day. George Washington owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln made racist arguments in his debates with Stephen Douglas. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was not known for his commitment to gender equality. Recalibrating the public celebration of past heroes, if it is to be done at all, requires a careful assessment of why they were honored, how central to their legacy was the viewpoint or characteristic now deemed offensive, how universally shared that trait or attitude was in their era and how egregious it seems to us today.
Richard Russell Jr. was one of the Senate’s longest-serving members, and he was generally regarded as one of the most influential. He chaired the powerful Armed Services Committee for most of the 1950s and 1960s. Early on, he was generally supportive of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and in 1946 he was the principal sponsor of the National School Lunch Act, which provided free or low-cost lunches to indigent schoolchildren. Russell was instrumental in the rise of his protege, Lyndon B. Johnson, to the Senate majority leadership.
Yet Russell was also one of the most prominent politicians in the mid-20th century to defend white supremacy – a system grounded on the assumption of black inferiority and committed to the thoroughgoing subordination, segregation and disfranchisement of African-Americans, sometimes through physical violence.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Russell participated in Southern filibusters to block federal bills aimed at suppressing lynchings and poll taxes. In 1956, he played a leading role in uniting Southern congressmen and senators behind the Southern Manifesto, which assailed the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education as a “clear abuse of judicial power” and pledged all “lawful means” of resistance to it.
In 1957, Russell helped to gut the provision in pending civil rights legislation that would have authorized the U.S. attorney general to sue for injunctions over civil rights violations, including school segregation. Russell criticized the measure for forcing desegregation with “federal bayonets.” That fall, when President Dwight Eisenhower sent federal troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a court order desegregating Central High School, Russell compared them to Nazi “Storm Troopers.”
In 1958, Russell revived an earlier proposal of his to create a federal agency that would equalize the distribution of the nation’s black population by offering financial assistance to African-Americans living in the South who wished to relocate to other states. The purpose of this bill, which was not a serious proposal, was to taunt Northern liberals over their supposed hypocrisy regarding civil rights by forcing measures on the South that they would have been unwilling to endure had they lived among similarly large black populations.
In 1963, Russell pledged to oppose civil rights legislation with “every means and resource at my command.” Warning of the “mongrelization” of the races in 1964, he then led the longest filibuster in Senate history in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, which opened up public accommodations to African-Americans, prohibited race discrimination in employment and barred the allocation of federal funds to entities that practiced race discrimination.
Russell was not a racial firebrand in the mold of Mississippi Sens. Theodore Bilbo and James Eastland, who frequently used racial epithets, spoke openly of black inferiority and slyly encouraged violence in opposition to school desegregation and black suffrage. Yet neither was Russell simply a casual racist as was common to that era. He was a prominent leader of what Russell himself bragged was “the last ditch” defense of white supremacy. That commitment to white supremacy was not a tangential part of Russell’s legacy. A couple of days after the Southern filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act failed, Russell bragged that “no group of men could have worked harder in a nobler cause.” Nor did Russell ever recant his role in the fight to preserve white supremacy before his death in 1971; the following year, a Senate office building was named for him.
Such a legacy ought not to be honored today, especially given that white supremacists are enjoying something of a political renaissance, and the president of the United States has a difficult time distinguishing between the “very fine people” on opposing sides of the struggle between white supremacy and racial justice. Regardless of whether the Russell Senate Office Building is adorned with McCain’s name, it is past time for Russell’s to go.
Michael J. Klarman is a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of “From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality.”