Not long after news broke that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) had died, the Senate’s Democratic Leader, Chuck Schumer, proposed an unusual tribute to his late colleague.
The Senate, the United States, and the world are lesser places without John McCain.
Nothing will overcome the loss of Senator McCain, but so that generations remember him I will be introducing a resolution to rename the Russell building after him.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) August 26, 2018
McCain, despite the hagiographic press coverage surrounding his death, was hardly a model senator. He supported the Iraq War and did not recant that support until this year. He would have placed Sarah Palin next-in-line for the presidency. His voting record, with a few admirable exceptions, was staunchly conservative. McCain was a better, more patriotic man than the charlatans who now dominate the Republican Party, but that’s not saying much.
But virtually anyone is more deserving of honor than Sen. Richard Russell, the arch-segregationist whose name decorates one of three Senate office buildings where the upper house of Congress conducts most of its business (the other two are named after Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican leader, and Sen. Philip Hart, a Democrat who died in the waning days of his final term in office).
Russell was a Georgia Democrat at a time where the South was a collection of one-party states, and when Southern Democrats fought tooth and nail to preserve American apartheid. “As one who was born and reared in the atmosphere of the Old South,” Russell told his constituents during his first Senate campaign, “with six generations of my forebears now resting beneath Southern soil, I am willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and insure white supremacy in the social, economic, and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.”
Russell twice filibustered federal bans on lynching — the second time joining a 6-week-long talk-a-thon to keep the bill from receiving a vote. He labeled the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned employment discrimination and whites-only lunch counters, “this short-sighted and disastrous legislation.” After President Lyndon Johnson signed this bill into law, Russell boycotted the 1964 Democratic National Convention that nominated Johnson to run for his first full term.
Russell, along with Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, was also one of the primary authors of the so-called Southern Manifesto, a 1956 document signed by dozens of Southern lawmakers opposed to Brown v. Board of Education. “The original Constitution does not mention education. Neither does the 14th Amendment nor any other amendment,” this manifesto proclaimed, ignoring the fact that the Fourteenth Amendment quite explicitly provides that people of all races shall enjoy “the equal protection of the laws.”
The signatories to this manifesto pledged to “use all lawful means to bring about a reversal of this decision which is contrary to the Constitution and to prevent the use of force in its implementation.”
Yet, for all of his hatred, Russell was one of the most capable men who ever served in the United States Senate. He was both a master of its procedures — procedures he used quite effectively to thwart civil rights legislation — and a diligent worker. Russell used to spend his evenings reading the Congressional Record, so that he would be aware of the issues that were debated that day and the positions of his colleagues.
When future President Johnson joined the Senate, he sought out Russell as a mentor, and Russell exacted a terrible price for that mentorship. Johnson’s first speech on the Senate floor was a demonstration of ideological loyalty to Russell’s segregationist agenda. If a federal agency can “compel me to employ a Negro,” the man who would eventually sign legislation forbidding race discrimination told the Senate, “it can compel that Negro to work for me. It might even tell him how long and how hard he would have to work. As I see it, such a law would do nothing more than enslave a minority.”
Russell deemed this speech “one of the ablest I have ever heard on the subject.”
The life of Sen. Richard Russell, in other words, stands as a warning that great ability is not always doled out to people of great virtue. Russell manipulated the Senate quite skillfully. He extracted loyalty from many of its most capable members. And he led the Southern caucus that kept civil rights at bay for decades.
Schumer is not the first person to propose renaming the Russell Senate Office Building after someone less odious. The Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky proposed renaming it after former Republican Leader Bob Dole. Roll Call’s Walter Shapiro wants to rename it after Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who he labels “the first Republican woman to have a serious Senate career.” I would rather see the building named for anti-slavery Sen. Charles Sumner or for Sen. Albert Beveridge, who led the early twentieth century fight to ban child labor.
But John McCain, for all of his many imperfections, is a massive step up from Richard Russell. The genius of Schumer’s proposal is it allows the Senate’s Republican majority to replace the name of a prominent Democrat with that of Republican, and to do so in a way that actually tells a better story about what kind of nation we aspire to be.