WASHINGTON ― A bipartisan effort to rename a Senate office building to honor Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who died Saturday, is being met by opposition from some Republican senators, who expressed concern about dishonoring the legacy of the controversial man for whom the structure was named.
The Russell Senate Office Building, one of three Senate office buildings near the U.S. Capitol that house member offices, was named after the late Democratic Sen. Richard Russell Jr. of Georgia in 1972. A New Deal supporter with a career that spanned four decades, he has a long list of accomplishments, among them being the chief sponsor of the National School Lunch Act, which provided free or low-cost school lunches to impoverished students. A skilled legislator and longtime friend of Lyndon Johnson, Russell served as the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and at one point ran for president.
But he is now most known for being an avowed segregationist and a “racist,” as his 76-year-old niece admitted to The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, and Russell’s record on civil rights is shocking today. Hohmann writes:
Russell successfully filibustered anti-lynching bills. He voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which he called “shortsighted and disastrous.” He blocked bills to eliminate poll taxes. He co-authored the “Southern Manifesto” to slow the integration of public schools after the Supreme Court unanimously ordered it in Brown v. Board of Education.
As a Dixiecrat — Southern Democratic politicians opposed to their party’s support for civil rights — Russell openly argued the white race was superior and once vowed that he would oppose “any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our states.” He later toned down his rhetoric and pinned the reason for his opposition to civil rights legislation on the less controversial states’ rights.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) on Tuesday began circulating a resolution to rename the Russell Senate Office Building for McCain, whose office is there, in honor of his legacy as a war hero and public servant. The effort has picked up support from many Republicans, including Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake.
But some Southerners expressed concern about taking Russell’s name off the building, arguing that it deserves to be there, despite his opposition to civil rights.
“He did so many other things,” Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) told reporters on Tuesday, citing Russell’s creation of the school lunch program. “He was a big supporter of the Great Society, the War on Poverty. Now, we all know those things failed, but he was a big champion of them.”
Perdue added, “This was a guy who was a giant in the Senate. This renaming thing because of one issue, it’s somewhat troubling.”
Perdue said he supported the creation of a bipartisan select committee of senators to recommend how best to honor McCain’s legacy in Washington, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced on Tuesday. McConnell suggested renaming the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing room after McCain, the committee’s most recent chairman, or adding his portrait to the Senate Reception Room. Notably, however, McConnell did not address Schumer’s proposal to rename the building.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), another influential Southerner in the Senate, said Russell was a “well respected” man in the South. But Shelby said he had not made up his mind on whether to support changing the name of the Russell building.
“You want to get into that, [then] you have to get into George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and most of our Founding Fathers, maybe with the exception of Hamilton. It’s easy to prejudge what they should have done. We didn’t live in that era,” Shelby told reporters on Tuesday.
When HuffPost noted that Washington and Jefferson, who both owned slaves, predated Russell by over 100 years, Shelby responded, “They did. But so did others.”
He added, “I’m not justifying anything. I’m a Southerner. I’m just saying Russell was a man of his time.”
The junior senator from Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones, meanwhile, had a different view of Russell’s legacy. As a former U.S. attorney in Alabama, Jones is known for prosecuting Ku Klux Klan members for the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four African-American girls.
“He certainly was a giant for sure,” Jones said of Russell. “But I think if you go look at the overall body of work, it would be good to see [McCain’s name on the building].”