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John McCain’s death gives civil rights activists reason to rename Russell building

August 28, 2018

Civil rights activists have been pushing for decades to remove Richard B. Russell’s name from the original Senate office building in Washington. Sen. John McCain’s death has finally given them the opening to do it.

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said Monday that he would follow through on his plan to write a resolution renaming the Russell Senate Office Building in honor of Mr. McCain, who died Saturday. Mr. McCain’s fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. Jeff Flake, will be a co-sponsor, and the idea was building steam among other senators.

The move was meant to be a tribute to an iconic colleague but it also would erase the name of a Democratic senator from Georgia who served nearly 40 years in the chamber but whose support for segregation had become an embarrassment for many in his party.

“It’s time we recognize that as times change, so do our heroes,” Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor.

He called Mr. Russell “a towering figure in the Senate of his day” but said his role as “the architect” of filibusters to blockade civil rights legislation can no longer be overlooked.

The renaming would take the form of a Senate resolution, so it wouldn’t need the approval of the House, nor would it need President Trump’s signature.

The Russell building was completed in 1909 and became the first permanent office built for senators. It was known simply as the Senate Office Building until it became the Old Senate Office Building once a new edifice was erected.

They were both given names in a 1972 resolution one for Russell, who died the previous year, and the other honoring the late Sen. Everett M. Dirksen, an Illinois Republican who died in 1969.

“At the time, they were both sort of towering figures in the Senate. Russell’s role in opposing desegregation had not loomed large at that time,” said Betty Koed, the Senate’s historian.

The only lawmaker to oppose the move was Sen. Philip Hart, who said he wasn’t impugning either man but thought it too soon after their deaths.

“I thought we had learned it was unwise to anticipate history’s verdict. I thought we understood that no longer would we, very quickly after the tragic loss of friends, undertake to memorialize them,” the Michigan Democrat said on the chamber floor.

Ironically, Hart’s name was added to the Senate’s third office building, which was under construction at the time of his retirement four years later.

Ms. Koed said Dirksen and Hart have escaped second-guessing, but Russell has been a target for outside groups.

More than a decade ago, Dick Gregory, a groundbreaking black comic, led a campaign known as “Change the Name” to try to get Russell’s name removed.

In 2015, Matt Bennett, the co-founder of think tank Third Way, suggested in a Washington Post op-ed renaming the building after the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

But Mr. Schumer’s proposal appears to be the first time a serious legislative effort has been made to change the name.

Georgia’s two senators, Republicans Johnny Isakson and David Perdue, each took a pass on whether they would support the change.

“John McCain is an American patriot and a cherished personal friend. This week, we are honoring his remarkable life and paying respects to the McCain family. Later, we will discuss ways to permanently memorialize his legacy and service to our country,” Mr. Perdue said.

Russell has a foundation in his honor, which is associated with the University of Georgia. The foundation’s chairman didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday.

But after the 2015 suggestion to rename the building after Kennedy, Powell A. Moore, who had been Russell’s press secretary, mounted a defense.

Writing in The Post, Powell said judging his boss by civil rights was unfair because he “didn’t invent segregation, he inherited it.”

Powell, who died this month, said Russell should instead be viewed as a leader on national security at a time when the U.S. defeated Germany and Japan and fought the Cold War.

“The factor that separated Russell from other senators was his exceptional trustworthiness. His colleagues knew they could rely on his integrity, patriotism, intellect, knowledge, diligence and sense of honor. He was revered in the Senate,” Powell wrote.

Mr. Bennett, who suggested the Kennedy renaming, said he would be more than satisfied with the honor going to Mr. McCain.

“The building name must be changed we can’t continue to so honor a bigot who stood in the way of progress on civil rights. And John McCain, for all of his faults, was an indisputably great American and great senator,” Mr. Bennett said.

He added: “Ted Kennedy also deserves an equally fitting remembrance. But he would surely say that the Schumer proposal is wise and just.”

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