Russell believed in the American system. When he went to the Senate at age 35, he studied that institution’s inspiration and methods and the U.S. Constitution in order to understand what he could do as a lawmaker. He became the undisputed authority in that illustrious body on what could and couldn’t be done with legislation.
Perhaps one of his greatest tributes is that Hubert Humphrey used some of Russell’s strategies to prevent passage of civil rights legislation in order to ensure its passage in 1964. Humphrey, an avowed and effective opponent on this measure, was one of Russell’s greatest admirers in the Senate. Although weather prevented many of his Senator colleagues from getting to Winder for Russell’s funeral, Humphrey managed to get there by taking a bus from Atlanta. He walked down the driveway of the family homeplace in a pouring rain in order to pay his respects.
Throughout years of civil rights fights, Russell was known for keeping the argument as decorous as possible. He was not a fiery, discourteous demagogue, was never accused of nastiness. On the contrary, it was lamented that such courtesy and knowledge of government could be used effectively against this human rights issue. It should never be ignored that he conducted all his objections under Constitutional considerations. When the Civil Rights law passed in 1964, he immediately urged compliance with it — a stand taken by few, if any other, Southern politicians.
Richard Russell was an historian, with profound knowledge of world and American history. Above all, he was a gifted and capable leader, uncommonly devoted to public service. He was human and therefore flawed, but Georgians and other Americans can be justly proud of this citizen and his life of extraordinary public service.
Sally Russell Warrington is a niece of the late U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell. She is an historian and author whose books have been published by both the University of Georgia and Mercer University presses.