Senator Russell and Southern Lynchings [OPINION]
There is an effort to rename the Richard Russell Senate building after the late Sen. John McCain. This is the right thing to do for many reasons.
Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia died in 1971. In 1972, the Senate named one of their buildings after him. In 1996, a statue of Russell was unveiled in that same Senate building. The ceremony was presided over by then-Vice President Al Gore.
One of the worst atrocities committed in the South against blacks was politically-motivated lynchings. Lynchings are murders committed to intimidate others--terrorism--and often, but not always, involved a hanging. The victims were the living and the dead.
Democrat Richard Russell served in the U.S. Senate from 1933 until his death in 1971. He spent nearly 40 years using his Senate position to hold down Americans that weren't like him, with considerable help from his fellow Democrats. The statue shows he was loved, not feared, by his political party.
The use of terrorism was a key element in the Democrats' control of the South after Reconstruction. Beatings, firebombings, assassinations and lynchings (public murders) were used to keep African Americans and Republicans from getting involved in politics. The Ku Klux Klan was a leader in using terrorism and politics to maintain Democrat control of the South.
The control of local sheriffs, prosecutors, courts and juries allowed for the terrorism by the KKK and others to go nearly unabated in the South. The only hope Americans with dark skin had to stop the terrorism was from the federal government.
"During the 1930's, lynching was the most urgent civil rights issue," writes historian Robert A. Caro on page 182 of his book Master of the Senate. Many efforts were made by some Senators to use the power of the federal government to halt the lynchings in the South. Each time, Sen. Russell was there to block the passage of the anti-lynching bills and to preserve the power of the KKK.
In 1996, Vice President Al Gore told the world that Sen. Russell "had a heart of gold" and "was one of the finest men to ever serve in the Senate." He said this in the Russell building at the dedication of the statue of Russell.
To defeat the anti-lynching bill in 1938, Sen. Russell told his fellow Senators that "the problem of lynchings was greatly exaggerated" and he added it was already "nearly eliminated." (Master of the Senate, p. 183)
On the Senate floor, Russell made his feelings known about the importance of lynching to the social and political order in his state. The use of federal power to stop lynchings and allow blacks to vote "would destroy the white civilization in the South" (Master of the Senate, p. 184).
Russell also said things like "this is a white man's country and we are going to keep it that way," and that he was insulted if anybody thought he stood "for political and social equality with the Negro." (Master of the Senate, p. 1081)
It is long past time to rename the Richard Russell Senate Building.
Chris McCarthy is the host of The Chris McCarthy Show on 1420 WBSM New Bedford. He can be heard weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Chris_topher_Mc. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.