“It’s really unfair and really irrational to judge somebody’s career by one issue, pick one low point and ignore everything else.”
Charles Campbell, U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell’s last chief of staff, criticizing a proposal to replace Russell’s name with John McCain’s on a Senate building in Washington, D.C. (WABE interview, Aug. 28. The federal courthouse in Atlanta also bears Russell’s name.
One issue — one low point.
Between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,000 African-Americans, including 589 in Georgia, died by lynching. In 1935, members of the U.S. Senate introduced a bill to outlaw lynching. Russell organized a six-day filibuster and the bill’s supporters gave up. The very next year, at least six Georgians were murdered by lynching.
In late 1938, no less than 70 senators sponsored a second anti-lynching bill. Russell fought the bill because it would destroy “the white civilization of the South.” The Senate dropped it. That year, there were six more lynchings in the South, including one in Russell’s home state.
In 1942, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have eliminated the poll tax in eight Southern states, including Georgia, a tax intended to suppress the voting rights of African-Americans. Russell reacted angrily to the bill’s supporters: If you expect “to force social equality and commingling of the races in the South, I can tell you now that you are doomed to failure.” The bill failed.
In 1944, the federal Fair Employment Practices Committee declared that southern railroads must promote train conductors and engineers without regard to race. The FEPC, Russell said, was “the most sickening manifestation of the trend that is now in effect to force social equality and miscegenation of the white and black races on the South.” Russell’s filibuster later ended President Truman’s effort to make the FEPC permanent.
In 1946, Truman appointed a blue-ribbon Committee on Civil Rights to propose ways to end segregation and racial discrimination in employment, housing, and more. Russell decried the commission as “an opening wedge in the fight to stop all segregation,” and feared that now blacks and whites would “attend the same schools, swim in the same pools, eat together, and eventually, intermarry.”
In 1949, Russell introduced a bill to “scatter the negroes over the country” by offering to pay any African-American family $1,500 to relocate from Southern states to Northern states. The bill never passed.
In 1956, Russell penned the Southern Manifesto, through which a handful of senators from Southern states banded together to resist civil rights legislation.
In 1957, the House of Representatives passed a civil rights bill which granted the Attorney General strong investigative and enforcement provisions. Russell gave a speech on the Senate floor: “[T]he concentration camps may as well be prepared now, because there will not be enough jails to hold the people of the South who will oppose the use of raw federal power forcibly to commingle white and Negro children in the same schools and places of public entertainment.” The Senate watered down the bill by removing the enforcement provisions. Russell crowed: He’d give up his life if the sacrifice would “guarantee the preservation of a civilization of two races of unmixed blood in the land that I love.”
In 1957, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the integration of schools. Russell blanched at the “tactics which must have been copied from … the office of Hitler’s Storm Troopers.” Russell later wrote to Ralph McGill: the federal government could “never compel Georgia to operate integrated schools — never, never.”
In 1960, President Eisenhower proposed a bill that authorized the Attorney General to send federal representatives to monitor states that denied African-Americans the right to vote. Russell led a triumphant filibuster. Four years later, three voting rights advocates were famously killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
During the 1960’s Russell viewed Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., as a “troublemaker” and insisted on receiving frequent, detailed reports from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI about Dr. King’s activities.
In 1962, police in Albany, Georgia, arrested 75 ministers who marched against segregation. In the face of national condemnation, Russell supported the arrests: the people of Albany should “take pride in their police force.”
In late 1962, President Kennedy sent federal troops to integrate the University of Mississippi. Russell urged him not to.
In November 1963, President Johnson asked Russell to serve on a commission to investigate President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Because the commission would include Chief Justice Earl Warren, the author of Brown v. Board of Education, Russell refused. When Johnson appointed him anyway, Russell skipped most of the hearings and tried to resign.
In 1964, the United States Congress finally passed an historic Civil Rights Act. But not before Russell led a failed filibuster, the longest in the Senate’s history, for 74 working days. Russell, aggrieved, claimed to be the victim of a “lynch mob.” But Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi cheered him up: “Except for you and your fine leadership, a strong civil rights bill would have been passed — at least one with major provisions — as early as 1948.”
Between 1938 and 1963, the United States Senate introduced 11 civil rights bills. Russell successfully fought off each and every bill, year after year after year. During that quarter-century, millions of American children (black and white) were born, were raised, and had children of their own. Another generation lived under the oppressive, deadly cloak of institutional racism, a cloak woven and mended by Russell.
The best that can be said of Russell, even by his apologists, is that he was powerful. But to what end? The year after Russell died, James Baldwin wrote this: “Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
Russell’s name, his mark, must no longer decorate any house of justice, including the Senate building and Atlanta’s federal courthouse.
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W. Matthew Dodge is a lawyer in Atlanta.