The history of Georgia is told in a series of bronze statues that ring the State Capitol Building. On the West side stands a hulking figure of Richard B. Russell, Jr., with a paternalistic hand raised toward a phantom audience. On the East side, Martin Luther King, Jr., stands with a notebook and overcoat, ready to go to work. And he would have much work to do even today, half a century after his death.
American racism is making a comeback. It finds favor in the White House and occasional comfort in the Supreme Court. Just last week, Justice Thomas dissented from an order granting certiorari to Keith Tharpe, an African-American man on Georgia’s death row. Justice Thomas mocked the majority for its “ceremonial handwringing” and derided its order as “no profile in moral courage.” The majority’s sin? It ordered the Eleventh Circuit to pay closer attention to a juror’s affidavit, in which he labeled African-Americans “n****rs” and “wondered if black people even have souls.” Dr. King had opinions about this sort of racism, but more on that in a moment.
Eighty-eight years ago: January 15, 1929. The young King was born at 501 Auburn Avenue, his family’s home in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Russell was the ambitious Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, which occupied the State Capitol at 206 Washington Street. Then, as now, one could step out of the Capitol, walk five blocks North on Piedmont Avenue, turn right on Auburn Avenue, and walk seven blocks to the King home. Russell never made that walk, of course.
A friend of mine, an African-American man, grew up in Georgia during the civil rights movement. He tells a tale often told in the African-American community of his youth: Russell, who served more than six terms years in the United States Senate, occasionally ran for reelection. As he traveled around rural Georgia making speeches, he promised each voter two gifts: “a chicken and a n****r.” After one such election, a rural voter drove from his farm to downtown Atlanta and walked into the Capitol Building to collect his promised gifts. Russell sat across a desk from the man and said this: “I can get you a chicken from our farm in Winder, but as for the n****r, well, you’ll have to walk over to Auburn Avenue for that.”
This tale of Russell, apocryphal or not, illuminates a deep truth about the most powerful Georgian of his time. This was no idle threat. During his many decades in power, Russell approved of violence toward African-Americans or, at the very least, allowed others to get their hands dirty while he stood by and held justice at bay. Between 1877 and 1950 (a period that closely matches Russell’s rise to power) the number of African-Americans lynched in Georgia was no less than 589. And which was the state’s county with the highest number of lynchings? Fulton County. The county in which Dr. King was born and raised. Yet during his ten years in the Georgia legislature, the last five as Speaker, Russell undermined every attempt by the Governor and other legislators to pass anti-lynching legislation. In the 1940’s, the United States Senate took up anti-lynching legislation of its own. But Senator Russell deftly blocked the bill because, he argued, it was “unnecessary and uncalled for.”
In Russell’s eyes, all was right with the world. Wrote Russell in a letter to a friend: “Any southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy.” And he once protested to President Johnson that intermarriage between races “would mean a mongrel race,” which, he feared, “would result in destroying America.”
Dr. King grew up in this world of suffocating, government-sanctioned racism. In a 1967 speech entitled “The Other America,” he offered this lyrical reflection on racism, on the tools of Russell and his peers in power:
Racism is still alive in American society and much more wide-spread than we realize. And we must see racism for what it is. It is a myth of the superior and the inferior race. It is the false and tragic notion that one particular group, that one particular race is responsible for all of the progress, for all of the insight and the total flow of history. And the theory that another race is totally depraved, innately impure, and innately inferior.
And in the final analysis, racism is evil because its ultimate logic is genocide. Hitler was a sick and tragic man who carried racism to its ultimate conclusion. And he ended up leading a nation to the point of killing about six million Jews. This is the tragedy of racism because its ultimate logic is genocide. If one says that I am not good enough to live next door to him, if one says that I am not good enough to eat at a lunch counter, or to have a decent job, or to go to school with him merely because of my race, he is saying consciously or unconsciously that I do not deserve to exist.
These words sound fresh, and fearsome, today. But Dr. King spoke them fifty years ago to a Stanford University auditorium filled with bright-eyed college students. He spoke them a mere year before his own murder by a white man. Russell, meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., limped toward the end of his life, a lonely, ill man of vastly diminished influence in the Senate and the White House.
Russell’s great lie—white supremacy—has outlived him in small pockets of this country. But, as Dr. King sang out to the 1967 audience, with fire in his eyes, “No lie can live forever.”
Editorial contributors: Jimmy Hardy, Natasha Silas, and Kendal Silas.