Who was Richard B. Russell?

And why does the federal courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, bear his name?  Richard B. Russell, a United States Senator (D. Ga.) from 1932 until his death in 1971.  Russell was the most powerful man in the Senate for decades, and the federal courthouse in Atlanta has borne his name since its creation in 1980.

Russell PortraitRussell was an old-school, dangerous racist.  He worked tirelessly to support Jim Crow laws.  He spoke of all non-white Americans with the most offensive language.  Beginning in 1948, Russell sabotaged every congressional effort to enact civil rights legislation until, finally, history passed him by with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and Voting Rights Act in 1965.  Russell limped to the end of his career, and his life, in 1971 having never changed his antebellum views of his state and of his nation.

I have written several times about Russell in the last couple years, including this opinion piece in The Daily Report.  And another essay commemorating a recent Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.  In December 2015, Rose Scott of WABE moderated a debate between Matthew Dodge and Jay Bookman, AJC columnist, on whether to banish Russell’s name from the courthouse.  You will all of this and more in our archives by searching for “Russell” on the front page.

Here is a reprint of last January’s post about Russell:

Sixty years ago, in 1957, the world’s most famous pair of Georgians, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. Richard B. Russell, Jr., each landed on the cover of Time Magazine.  Russell, the most powerful man in our federal government, a fearsome and successful foe of civil rights, peered back into the past, anxious and longing for a fading, agrarian, white world; Dr. King, a twenty-nine-year-old preacher, stared forward into a blessed future, and spoke truth to power.

The magazine captured the two men traveling along the road of history in very different directions.  Dr. King’s birthday is now a national holiday, his words and deeds studied the world over.  Russell’s name is saved from obscurity only by etchings upon a handful of office buildings, including our own federal courthouse.

King Time Magazine

One decade after these pair of magazine covers, on April 4, 1968, each of these men spent the day as his truest self.  The weary preacher met with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, and prepared to spend the night in a modest hotel.  The worn politician sat alone at his desk in Washington, D.C., and penned an angry letter to a sympathetic friend.

Mere hours before Dr. King’s murder, Russell wrote an impassioned missive about civil rights and declared that it would be “a national shame to have such a pack of wolves and mongrels defeat so fine a man.”  Alas, the “fine man” was a racist lawyer, not Dr. King, and the “mongrels” were civil rights advocates seeking change in the world.  Two months earlier, Russell had nominated Alexander Lawrence to the federal bench in Savannah.  Lawrence, a segregationist and former president of the Georgia Bar Association, had publically denounced the Supreme Court, following Brown v. Board of Education, as tyrants no better than the worst English kings.  Lawrence bragged to friends that he modeled his own words after Russell’s speeches.  White and black civil rights advocates, including the Georgia NAACP, decried the nomination.  President Johnson delayed the appointment for many months while his own attorney general, Ramsey Clark, threatened to quit if Johnson elevated Lawrence to the bench.  Russell was angry and embarrassed to see his nomination stall, and said so in his letter to a sympathetic ally, a letter in which he belittled “the extremists” opposing Lawrence.

That evening, after Russell finished his letter, a white assassin shot down the world’s most famous extremist of all.  In the ensuing days, Russell reacted not with an olive branch to his many Georgia constituents, white and black, overcome by grief.  Instead, Russell merely cloistered himself in his office and sent his female staffers home early to Russell Time Mag 1957avoid the “riots” filling the streets outside the U.S. Capitol Building, fiery protests lit by the assassination.

The Senate later confirmed Lawrence’s nomination.  Even today, half a century later, the current nominee for attorney general confronts troubling evidence of his own antebellum-style bigotry.  The president-elect derides John Lewis, Atlanta’s own civil rights hero and ally of Dr. King, as a man who is “all talk.”  Russell’s name continues to decorate the face of our own federal courthouse.  All of this is dispiriting.

And yet, as our own President recently observed, “progress is not a straight line.”  And as Dr. King himself proclaimed months before his own death, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  We defenders can celebrate Dr. King’s birth and life by walking each day through the doors of the Russell Building, past Russell’s lonely bronze bust perched in an obscure corner of the lobby, and up to the courtrooms.  We may then bend the arc of justice, however slightly, by speaking our own truth to power.  March on.