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It's not just a Senate office building that was named for Richard B. Russell

What do the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Farm Security Administration, the National School Lunch Program,...

Posted: Aug. 28, 2018 7:54 PM

What do the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Farm Security Administration, the National School Lunch Program, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have in common with the Southern Manifesto, a 1956 document written in the US Congress to oppose the racial integration of public places mandated by the 1954 US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education?

They were all, in some measure, the result of the work of Richard B. Russell (1897-1971), a New Deal Democrat who served as governor of Georgia in the 1930s before embarking on a nearly four-decade tenure in the US Senate, where among other things he was known for making shrewd deals, mentoring Lyndon B. Johnson and helping to filibuster civil rights legislation in the 1960s (before his friendship with LBJ came to an abrupt end in a 1968 fight over Johnson's unsuccessful nomination of his friend Abe Fortas to be chief justice of the US Supreme Court).

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He is also the Russell of one of the three Senate Office Buildings -- the others being named after Sens. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois and Philip A. Hart of Michigan.

With the death of longtime US Sen. John McCain, much of America is mourning, and a bipartisan group of his colleagues has identified the renaming of the Senate building bearing Russell's name as a potential way to honor McCain. There have been previous efforts over the years to rename the building, where a statue of Russell also stands in the rotunda; Chuck Schumer and others (including Jeff Flake and Orrin Hatch) are only the latest to propose removing the name of such a divisive figure as Russell.

Russell's positions on segregation and racial equality were stark and unequivocally racist. As Russell's biographer Gilbert C. Fite wrote, "White supremacy and racial segregation were to him cardinal principles for good and workable human relationships." Citing Russell's "deep emotional commitment" to preserving the Jim Crow South into which he had come of age, "No sacrifice was too great for him to make if it would prevent the extension of full equality to blacks."

Johnson eventually severed ties with Russell, and Schumer, in beginning the bid to re-name the building for McCain, feels it's time for the US Senate to do so as well. He said in a statement Saturday that he "always felt we could more appropriately name the Richard Russell Office Building and John McCain was the perfect person for that," as a person who "put a dagger" through the heart of bigotry when he saw it.

With language like that, you might imagine that Russell's mark in politics may have gone the way of days like his unsuccessful run for president in 1952, when kite-flying contests, and not tweets, were a way of making political voices heard. Even then, his attitude on civil rights was a liability in national politics.

You'd be mistaken. Particularly if you live in Georgia or happen to pass through it, you'll find his name on lots of things. Immortalizing widely the name of someone whose politics don't stand the test of time doesn't set Russell or Georgia apart from many states across the South (or the rest of the country, for that matter). For many, Russell's name is synonymous with a painful past and America's complicated racial history. But as Charlottesville and other events show us, such painful chapters continue to warrant a reckoning, whether that be with the Confederacy, Jim Crow, or white supremacy evident today.

With that in mind, it's worth taking note of some of the places where you will still find the name Richard B. Russell.

On public works

On school buildings

On scenic highways

On the Georgia state capitol grounds

On an airport

On a federal building (one besides the US Senate building, that is)

When it comes to the history of the American South, perhaps the most over-quoted line in history comes from William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." But quotable lines become clichés for a reason -- usually, their continued relevance to everyday life. In the case of the Russell Senate Office Building, as with the fate of statues of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Nathan Bedford Forrest in Memphis, "Silent Sam" in Chapel Hill or monuments across the South and elsewhere, what to do with a dead past isn't the right question. The question actually facing us is how we can co-exist with a history and a present that live, imperfectly and angrily, all around us and continue to demand our attention.

Removing Russell's name from the Senate or any of the other places you'll find it won't provide the answer, but hopefully the conversation will serve as a prescient reminder that we can't ignore the question.

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