By Natasha Perdew Silas
On Sunday, the Atlanta Journal Constitution published a spectacular op-ed piece. And this one was not anonymous. It was written by our own W. Matthew Dodge and entitled “Russell’s Name Should Not Be On Halls of Justice.” (Click on the link to read the piece.) The title alone would earn the piece a standing ovation from this blogger. Much more than a bare declaration, however, Matt’s piece is a detailed deconstruction of the claim by Senator Richard B. Russell’s former Chief of Staff Charles Campbell that it is wrong to judge his former boss based solely on his stance on segregation. Rather, Campbell and others (including Senator David Perdue) refer to Russell’s stance on segregation as simply a “single issue” or a “low point” for Russell. Our own Mr. Dodge is not one to dodge an issue. Instead, taking Campbell’s argument as his starting point, Matt chronicles Russell’s year-after-year and time-after-time, career-defining, staunch protection of the regime of segregation in the South as the self-appointed guardian of its horrors.
Russell himself made segregation his signature issue and he rode that issue throughout his entire career in the Senate, not just during one low point. It was his crusade and he was its crusader. Russell famously declared that he would give up his life if the sacrifice would “guarantee the preservation of a civilization of two races of unmixed blood in the land that [he] love[d].” But don’t take my word for any of this. Matt’s piece is a must-read for anyone who dares to seek justice for citizens of all hues in a building named for one of the most skillful defenders of injustice and deniers of the equality of all men.
Matt’s op-ed was one of a trilogy of related pieces published by the AJC over the past weekend. On Thursday, the AJC ran an article highlighting United States Congressman Hank Johnson’s view that Russell’s name should be stripped from our federal courthouse. According to Rep. Johnson: “There is no reason why we should continue to grace a federal office building [with] the name of an unabashed racist and one who turned a blind eye to terrorism against African-Americans.” The AJC notes that Rep. Johnson may be the most prominent person to express the opinion that the courthouse should be renamed, but he was not the first. Back in 2015, Matthew Dodge wrote in the Fulton County Daily Report that having Russell’s name “emblazoned across the front façade” of our federal courthouse is a “confused, hostile message” and that it ought to be changed “[f]or the sake of our citizens walking into a federal courthouse seeking justice, for the lawyers who work with them and for the countless public servants who work inside.”
The last piece of the trilogy was written by Senator Russell’s niece, Sally Russell Warrington, and is entitled “Russell Senate Office Building Doesn’t Need New Name.” Unsurprisingly, Ms. Warrington opposes the removal of her uncle’s name from any building. She attempts to explain Russell as a product of his time, which he called the “most thrilling years in the life of human history.” Thrilling yes, for some, but not so much for others, whose lives were at best stifled by the system of segregation and at worst terrorized by the system protected by her uncle. According to Warrington, Russell’s views were shaped in part by having parents who grew up under the “horrors” of Reconstruction. He was reared to venerate the “worn and vanishing splendor of the American Old South.” This is presumably back when the South was “great.”
Russell’s niece admits that the late Senator was “flawed,” as all humans are. But if Russell’s flawed life was placed on a balance sheet (instead of being viewed only through the lens of his abhorrent segregationist stance), what would we find on the other side of the ledger? Warrington offers that Russell was a legislator who operated with “consummate grace.” He respected “decorum.” He was a “gifted and capable leader, uncommonly devoted to public service.” As Matt pointed out in his 2015 Daily Report editorial, Russell was unquestionably an extremely effective leader, but he used his leadership to oppose racial justice at every turn. And as for his decorum, Russell’s civility is hard to applaud when it was deployed to keep the federal Government from interfering in the abuse of an entire race of people who suffered profoundly uncivil treatment. And to those who trumpet Russell’s contributions to school lunch programs and the military, I say this: perhaps his name ought to grace a school cafeteria or military base, rather than a hall of justice.
It is understandable that there will be those, especially Russell family members, who wish to protect Russell’s legacy no matter how spotted it may be. After all, Russell was an unmatched virtuoso at playing the Washington political game. Warrington says that it is “hardly surprising” that her uncle, “a white, middle-class, male, born in 1897 in Winder,” would grow up “believing in segregation.” I will grant her that. The problem is that Richard B. Russell was not simply one of the millions of Southerners on the band wagon of segregation, he was its drum major.
It was not our generation that made the tragic choice to elevate Russell’s name to a place of honor in our hall of justice. Each generation must make its own choices. As for myself, this “mixed blood” lawyer has already stripped Russell’s name from all pleadings and correspondence. The building at 75 Ted Turner Drive is referenced in my motions and letters simply as the “United States Courthouse.” In fact, every time I prepare a pleading omitting Russell’s name, I think of my friend Cynthia Roseberry’s closing argument in a 2007 trial in which she boldly declared to jurors that they had a duty to honor the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under the law. This, she said, they must do despite the fact that the trial was being conducted in a building named for a man who never respected the guarantee of equal justice; who did all he could to suppress it; and who would even have denied her (or me for that matter) the right to make any argument in court on behalf of a citizen. The bitter irony of our courthouse’s name is absolutely inescapable. I’m with Matt: Russell’s name should not be on halls of justice. It is time to remove it. I guess you can tell — I loved the article. Bravo, my friend!