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Russell Building an ‘Injustice’?

Three decades after the death of Sen. Richard Russell, a group led by social activist Dick Gregory is seeking to strip Russell’s name from a Senate office building, labeling the late Georgia Democrat “a white supremacist.” Although it opened in 1909, the Russell Senate Office Building didn’t receive its current name until 1972, a year after the Georgian’s death at age 73. At one time, the building housed the offices of every Senator and was featured in the Hollywood classics “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Advise and Consent.”

“It is time we correct this grave injustice,” says Gregory, a black entertainer, author and activist who is leading the effort. Born in 1932 and raised in poverty in St. Louis in the 1940s, Gregory broke into the world of comedy in the 1950s and become a powerful voice in the civil rights movement. He currently splits his time between Washington, D.C., and Plymouth, Mass., where he lives with his wife.

“Countless numbers of innocent Americans were dragged from their homes and brutally executed during Russell’s tenure in the Senate,” Gregory stated in an announcement of his plans. “By blocking every bill to stop these heinous acts, Russell was complicit in these deaths.”

Gregory’s group, called Change the Name, recently submitted a 181-page report to the Senate titled “The Case for Removing Senator Richard Russell’s Moniker and Statue from the Old Senate Office Building.”

The group is planning events to promote its cause and is actively seeking Senators to sponsor or co-sponsor legislation to erase Russell’s name from the office building as well as remove a statue of him that stands in the Russell Building’s rotunda. It hopes to pass such a resolution during February, which is Black History Month.

Calling Russell a “self-proclaimed, unrepentant white supremacist,” the report details Russell’s well-known opposition to the civil rights legislation and anti-lynching legislation throughout the course of his Senate career.

Indeed, Russell often argued that the social order of the country would collapse if the Senate were to ever pass civil rights legislation and he argued vehemently for the preservation of segregation.

“We believe the system of segregation … is necessary to preserve peace and harmony between the states,” he once said.

Biographer Gilbert Fite, who served from 1976 to 1986 as the first Richard B. Russell professor of American history at the University of Georgia, wrote extensively about Russell’s beliefs in “white supremacy, and in the absolute superiority of Anglo-Saxon culture.”

“Since he considered blacks racially inferior, he believed that neither education nor anything else could possibly make them equal to whites,” Fite wrote. “With a superior and an inferior race living side by side, it was to be expected that the superior group would work out the relationship that would govern society. Thus southern whites had developed a system of race relations that Russell claimed was best for both races.”

Lone Opponent

Known simply as the Senate Office Building during its first 70 years — and later referred to as the Old Senate Office Building when another structure now known as the Dirksen Senate Office Building was erected — the Russell Building was officially renamed in 1972, when the 92nd Congress entered its second session.

It was Sens. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) who reached an agreement to name the building after their former colleague.

Their resolution — which also renamed what was then known as the New Senate Office Building after Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), who had died several years earlier — passed the Senate in a 99-1 vote.

Ironically, the lone objector was Sen. Philip Hart (D-Mich.), who 15 years later would be memorialized in the naming of the Hart Senate Office Building.

“I feel deeply that the Senate is making a mistake in undertaking so quickly after the deaths of two very brilliant former Members of this body, to name these two permanent buildings in their honor,” Hart argued. “This is not to suggest that I doubt that Richard Russell and Everett Dirksen were impressive Senators. All of us know them to have been exactly that. But I thought we had learned that it is unwise to anticipate history’s verdict.”

But 99 other voices saw the naming of the building after Russell a fitting tribute to the man who was fondly known as the “Senator’s Senator” and who tirelessly served the institution for years, serving as chairman of the Armed Services and Appropriations committees.

A master politician with a keen grasp of the Senate’s rules and parliamentary procedures, Russell led a powerful group of Southern Senators and is widely credited with helping his one-time protégé, former President Lyndon B. Johnson, rise to power in the Senate in the 1950s.

In his book “Master of the Senate,” which chronicles Johnson’s career on Capitol Hill, historian Robert Caro devotes considerable attention to the life and times of Russell, and closely examines his crusade against civil rights legislation as well as the Southern attitudes that shaped his beliefs.

“The Southerners were led by a Senator, Richard Brevard Russell of Georgia, who during a quarter of a century in the Senate had never lost a civil rights fight, a legislative strategist so masterful that he had, in long years of uninterrupted victory, been called the South’s greatest general since Robert E. Lee,” Caro said of Russell.

Caro also paints the picture of a strong leader with a commanding presence that reassured his contemporaries.

“Americans touring Washington today hardly know for whom the ‘Russell Senate Office Building’ is named,” Caro wrote, “but during his years in the Senate he was a figure so towering that an admiring journalist would recall years later, ‘Back then, when the U.S. got into trouble and Truman or Ike or Kennedy asked for help, Russell would gather up his six-foot frame, stick a forefinger into his somber vest and amble down those dim corridors to see if he could help his country. Everybody watching felt better when he arrived.’”

A ‘Personal Hero’

Finding a Senator to sponsor a resolution to banish Russell’s name from Capitol Hill may prove to be a difficult task for Gregory and his group. (Since former Illinois Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun was defeated in 1998, no black has served in the Senate.)

When asked last week what they thought about the idea, those Members of the 108th Congress who would even speak about it — many still skittish to discuss race at all in the aftermath of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) fall from leadership after comments many deemed racially insensitive — seemed disturbed by the idea.

“What Senator’s going to introduce that?” an incredulous Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) replied in the hallway when asked how he felt about it.

The former Georgia governor declined to discuss the controversy in any further detail, calling Russell’s views on race and the naming of a building after him a “deep” topic that he did not have time to get into in the corridors of the Capitol.

Stopped in a hallway, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said she was unaware of the movement to change the name of the Russell Building and couldn’t comment on it.

As he left a vote Thursday, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) quipped that he wouldn’t mind if they “renamed it the Specter Building,” but added that in all seriousness the notion seemed to trouble him.

“It’s very hard to go back and recast history and change the names of buildings and streets and post offices,” Specter explained, adding that Russell “has to be judged in his time.”

Nonetheless, Specter added, “if someone wanted to make a point of it,” he’d listen.

What is clear, however, is that despite his 30-year absence from the Hill, Russell still has many admirers around the Capitol.

In a farewell speech in the Senate well late last year, then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who had just lost an ugly re-election battle, paid tribute to the former Senator and noted that he had spent his one term in the Senate sitting at Russell’s old desk.

“I have had the chance to realize a lifelong dream by following in the footsteps of one of my personal heroes, Senator Richard Russell of Georgia,” Cleland said.

Just last week, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) recalled in a Senate floor speech the “awe” he felt when as secretary of the Navy he was called upon to testify years ago before the Senate Armed Services Committee and Russell, a strong advocate of a powerful national defense.

Warner, who is now the Armed Services chairman, offered nothing but words of praise for Russell in a one-on-one interview last week.

“The men and women of the armed forces for almost a half-century were cared for and protected by the strong hand of Richard Russell through World War II, Korea, and in the early phases of the Vietnam War, and our armed forces remain strong today because of the foundations that he laid,” Warner said.

Even Change the Name acknowledged Russell’s achievements, but argued that it was impossible to justify overlooking other elements of his record.

“No one doubts that Richard Russell was a patriot,” the group’s report to the Senate on Russell concludes. “But his love of country does not excuse his long, shameful history of countenancing violence against African-Americans and other minorities. In sum, Senator Russell did more harm than good.”

This is neither the first nor the only ongoing effort to strip a federal building’s name.

Last summer, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, introduced legislation to strike J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the building that serves as the Washington headquarters for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“Symbolism matters in the United States, and it is wrong to honor a man who frequently manipulated the law to achieve his personal goals,” Burton said when he introduced the measure.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) sponsored a similar amendment several years ago, but it failed in a 62-36 vote.

Burton’s efforts have been endorsed by Martin Luther King III, the son of the slain civil rights leader, who was targeted by Hoover. It is widely acknowledged that Hoover abused his powers as the FBI head to carry out a misinformation campaign against King and others.

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