The range of history in the dates of Richard Brevard Russell (1897-1971) indicates that he lived, as he said, “during the most thrilling 50 years in the life of the human family.” That “fifty” encompasses his years of public service, begun when he was 23 years old.
In 1897 the world was beginning a dramatic swing into a century that would see more changes in religion, politics, society, science, technology and war than almost all other centuries of human history. It was a tempestuous and provocative ride for a white male born to fulfill great expectations in the mercurial modern political arena, yet reared also to venerate the worn and vanishing splendor of the American Old South.
Russell became one of the half-dozen most powerful men in Washington for a period of 20 years, and it was frequently speculated that if he had been from a state such as Indiana, Illinois, or Missouri, the presidency could not have been denied him. Although Russell, a keen historian, felt deeply the hurt of being Southern when it was still to be a much disfavored stepchild on the national scene, all who knew him and his work judged that within these difficult boundaries he operated with consummate grace, able to deal with an astonishing range of national problems. The vote to name the Senate Office Building in his honor was 99 to 1, yet his stand on civil rights legislation has tainted his reputation in recent years.
It is hardly surprising that a white, middle-class male, born in 1897 in Winder, the first son of Southern parents who were themselves children of the social and economic horrors of Reconstruction, would grow up believing in segregation. The scientific superiority of the white race, now clearly accepted as mistaken, was taught in his schools. There were no radios, no televisions, and only white Southern newspapers and histories were presented to him until he was grown. In his family life he saw no abuse of the many African-American people who worked as servants and farm laborers. Instead he learned a respect for them as human beings in a specific place within an ancient hierarchy. Thanks to his mother’s example of acceptance of this hierarchy, which she saw as Biblical, he had the same attitude toward women of all races.
Allegiance to hierarchy dominated the world’s governments throughout most of the history of humankind until the establishment of the American state in the late 18th century. Even then, our Founding Fathers created the United States Senate as part of the governing mechanism, hoping this elite body would prevent democracy’s potential to deteriorate into mob rule.
Russell believed in the American system. When he went to the Senate at age 35, he studied that institution’s inspiration and methods and the U.S. Constitution in order to understand what he could do as a lawmaker. He became the undisputed authority in that illustrious body on what could and couldn’t be done with legislation.
Perhaps one of his greatest tributes is that Hubert Humphrey used some of Russell’s strategies to prevent passage of civil rights legislation in order to ensure its passage in 1964. Humphrey, an avowed and effective opponent on this measure, was one of Russell’s greatest admirers in the Senate. Although weather prevented many of his Senator colleagues from getting to Winder for Russell’s funeral, Humphrey managed to get there by taking a bus from Atlanta. He walked down the driveway of the family homeplace in a pouring rain in order to pay his respects.
Throughout years of civil rights fights, Russell was known for keeping the argument as decorous as possible. He was not a fiery, discourteous demagogue, was never accused of nastiness. On the contrary, it was lamented that such courtesy and knowledge of government could be used effectively against this human rights issue. It should never be ignored that he conducted all his objections under Constitutional considerations. When the Civil Rights law passed in 1964, he immediately urged compliance with it — a stand taken by few, if any other, Southern politicians.
Richard Russell was an historian, with profound knowledge of world and American history. Above all, he was a gifted and capable leader, uncommonly devoted to public service. He was human and therefore flawed, but Georgians and other Americans can be justly proud of this citizen and his life of extraordinary public service.
Sally Russell Warrington is a niece of the late U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell. She is an historian and author whose books have been published by both the University of Georgia and Mercer University presses.