WASHINGTON – Powerful Georgia Democratic Sen. Richard Russell has been dead for 32 years now, but he is still creating a ruckus among groups who say his racist sentiments should revile lawmakers enough to strip his name from the Senate office building.
"It’s a mindset now. The symbol of this man on a building is not going to be tolerated," civil rights activist Dick Gregory said Tuesday during a press conference.
Gregory, who organized the group Change the Name, and other well-known activists like Martin Luther King III say Russell wasn't merely a typical Dixiecrat from his day but an active white supremacist and segregationist.
They want his name and statue removed from the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill and are calling on the Senate to pass a resolution this month — Black History Month — agreeing to change the building's name and remove its namesake's likeness.
"More than any other senator of his time, Richard Russell violated individual rights, jeopardized orderly democratic procedure and extended victimization to an already oppressed group of U.S. citizens," Change the Name wrote in a letter to all 100 U.S. senators last month. "Americans suffered and died because of Richard Russell’s words and deeds."
Russell represented Georgia in the Senate for 38 years, the first senator to serve more than half of his life in the chamber. He served from 1933 until his death in 1971 at age 73.
He’s has been heralded as one of the most powerful men ever to hold a seat in Congress. He was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, ranking Democrat and chairman on the Senate Armed Services Committee, senior member of the Senate Democratic Policy and Steering Committees and ranking Democrat on the Senate Aeronautical and Space Science and Joint Committee on Atomic Science.
"Richard Russell was a man of towering intellect and unwavering integrity," former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew said in 1968 when Russell became president pro tempore of the Senate. "He was a partisan of principle, who, in times of crisis, never failed to place the broad interests of his country above all other considerations."
Russell began his political career at age 22 when he was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives, where he served 10 years; the last four as speaker. In 1930, he became Georgia’s youngest governor before taking a stab at the U.S. Senate seat two years later.
"Had he not been from the south and had antiquated attitudes about racial integration, he could have been president of the United States," Senate historian Richard Baker told Foxnews.com.
Change the Name points out that from 1935-1950, Russell organized or participated in efforts to defeat anti-lynching legislation, even ones passed by the House. In 1964, Russell led attempts to stall major civil rights legislation.
"If there’s any one person who single-handedly … blocked anti-lynching legislation, it would be Richard Russell," Gregory said.
In 1972, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and then-Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., authored the bill to name the Senate building after Russell. The resolution passed by a vote of 99-1. The opposing vote came from Sen. Philip Hart, D-Mich., who also had a Senate building named after him 15 years later. At the time, Hart said that it was "unwise to anticipate history's verdict" of those who have served in the Senate's halls.
Historian Baker said that after he lost his fight to prevent civil rights legislation, Russell recognized that his era was coming to an end and he had likely outlived his ability to be a creative, innovator legislator.
But at the time of the building's naming, lawmakers probably didn't realize just how unpopular Russell's views would later become.
"Even though we can condemn their attitudes from the perspective of today, it’s probably unfair to condemn them out of hand in the context in their own times," Baker said.
Change the Name, which plans to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus on the issue, has not received any response from senators regarding its request to change the building's name, and it appears unlikely there will be many willing to sponsor such a resolution.
Byrd’s office refused to comment on whether or not the building should be renamed.
Both Baker and Gregory's group agree that a building name does matter, although they differ on its purpose and effect.
"Sen. Russell’s memorial in the United States Senate creates a spirit of cynicism, suspicion and mistrust that affects the attitudes of many Americans toward their government," the letter to senators reads.
"I think [naming a building] matters a great deal because it reminds people" to think about historical figures, Baker said.
"The whole idea is to get people to think, there was a time before our own … it does, at least, keep the memory alive and it honors a person who, in the context of his own era, made significant accomplishments."
However, Baker added, it could be unwise to begin judging past figures based on present-day ideals because it could end up in the loss of both art and history.
"Once you go down that road, then they might as well put a removable plaque on the outside of an office building and every 30 years you can put a new name up there that people know and might be a little bit more in keeping with the times," he said.