The Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta is home to a U.S. District Court. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Georgia lawmaker wants to rename the other Russell building

U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson thinks the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta, which is home to Georgia’s U.S. District court, the U.S. attorney’s office and several government outposts, should be renamed because of the former lawmaker’s legacy as a preeminent opponent of the civil rights movement. 

“There are so many judges that building could be named after who have distinguished themselves throughout the history of Georgia,” the Lithonia Democrat said Wednesday. “There is no reason why we should continue to grace a (federal) office building after the name of an unabashed racist and one who turned a blind eye to terrorism against African Americans.”

A former Georgia governor and longtime U.S. senator, Russell mentored presidents, created the school lunch program and brought multiple military bases to Georgia. But he was also a segregationist who used his mastery of the Senate’s rules to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act and oppose bills banning lynching and abolishing the poll tax.

Johnson suggested renaming the federal building after Martin Luther King Jr. or Frank Minis Johnson, a federal judge who made several watershed civil rights rulings beginning in the 1950s. While Johnson is the most prominent person to endorse renaming the Atlanta building, he’s not the first. 

Months after an avowed white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at a Charleston AME church, Atlanta lawyer W. Matthew Dodge penned an op-ed in the Daily Report calling for a name change. 

“For the sake of our citizens walking into a federal courthouse seeking justice, for the lawyers who work with them and for the countless public servants who work inside, we ought to pause a moment to consider what it means that Russell’s name is emblazoned across the front façade,” wrote Dodge, an attorney with the Federal Defender Program, in December 2015. “It is a confused, hostile message.” 

Dodge said his op-ed inspired a debate segment on WABE and a rebuttal from former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland but little else. Several would-be Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, including Johnson, passed on the chance to help him, he said. (Congress has the authority to rename federal buildings.)

So Dodge said he was “heartened” by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s recent proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington for the late U.S. Sen. John McCain. But after gaining some initial traction, the proposal faced resistance from several Southern lawmakers, including Georgia’s David Perdue. 

“This is a man who made tremendous contributions,” Perdue said of Russell. “In hindsight, today we can say he was wrong on any issue, but I think you’ve got to measure that in the full picture of his contributions, just like John McCain.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell eventually opted to create a bipartisan group to study ways to honor McCain’s legacy instead of endorsing the name change outright. 

Dodge said he feared “we’re letting the loudest voices in the room kind of shut this down again.”

Even with Johnson’s support, renaming Atlanta’s federal building will not be easy with Democrats in the minority in Washington and the president speaking out against political correctness in politics. Furthermore, not all Democrats are on the same page. 

U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta, thinks Russell’s name should stay on both buildings. 

“I think we better be very, very careful, particularly when it comes to black American history, because our history will be lost without the recognition of slavery, the recognition of our achievements to end it … (and) segregation,” said Scott, who is African-American, on Thursday. “If you erase it you don’t have the story to tell.”

The federal building isn’t Atlanta’s only memorial to Russell. His statue adorns the grounds of the Georgia Capitol, where dozens of other segregationist and Confederate figures are also memorialized in paintings and sculptures

A statue of former Governor and U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell outside of the Georgia Capitol. James Salzer/AJC

Insiders’ note: this story was ripped and expanded from today’s morning Jolt. Read it here

About the Author

Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman
Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that...