[Four years ago, we published this column here on the Blue Notes Blog. We have edited and reprinted the column in honor of Dr. King’s latest birthday.]
The history of Georgia is told in a series of bronze statues that ring the State Capitol Building. On the West side, next to the front entrance, stands Richard B. Russell, Jr., with a menacing hand raised toward a phantom audience. On the East side of the building, next to the back door, Martin Luther King, Jr., stands with a notebook and overcoat, ready to go to work.
More than a half a century ago, both men died: Dr. King of murder and Russell of illness. Today, on this federal holiday, we all celebrate Dr. King. Yet whom did the federal government celebrate first? Russell. One year after his death, in 1972, the U.S. Senate renamed an office building after Russell. And in 1981, when it built a new federal courthouse in Atlanta, Congress christened that structure, too, with Russell’s name. Two years later, the federal government finally declared Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. The holiday remains, but so, too, do the pair of Russell Buildings.
On January 15, 1929, Dr. King was born at 501 Auburn Avenue, his family’s home in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward. At the time, 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 surely never traveled that historic path.
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 one term as Governor and more than six terms in the United States Senate, occasionally ran for reelection. As he traveled around rural Georgia making speeches, he promised white voters, if they helped him win, two gifts: “a chicken and a n****r.” After one such victory, a voter drove from his farm to Atlanta and walked into Russell’s office 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. During his many decades in power, Russell sanctioned and encouraged violence toward African-Americans. Between 1877 and 1950 (a period that includes Russell’s rise to power) the number of African-Americans lynched in Georgia was no less than 589. During Russell’s decade in the Georgia legislature (from 1921-31), he undermined every attempt by the Governor and other legislators to pass anti-lynching legislation. And following his arrival in the U.S. Senate in 1933, he did the same. In the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s, the Senate often took up anti-lynching legislation of its own. But Russell deftly blocked bill after bill because, he argued, it was “unnecessary and uncalled for.” In Russell’s eyes, all was right with the world: “Any southern white man worth a pinch of salt would give his all to maintain white supremacy.” And so he did.
Dr. King, meanwhile, grew up in a city, state, and country filled with Russell’s brand of government-sanctioned racism. In a 1967 speech at Stanford University titled “The Other America,” Dr. King 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.
Dr. King spoke these words a year before his own murder at the hands of a white man. Russell, meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., limped toward the end of his life, a lonely man of vastly diminished influence in the Senate and the White House. By then, with the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, history had passed Russell by. Or did it?
In the Stanford speech, Dr. King sang out to his audience, “No lie can live forever.” And that is true. Yet Russell’s great lie—white supremacy—has outlived him. Even today, on this MLK Day, it is that lie, no less than Russell’s name, that remains splashed across the façade of our federal courthouse.