Replace Richard Russell’s Name With McCain’s? Senate Debates a Segregationist’s Legacy

WASHINGTON — The names of three men who once dominated the Senate’s halls of power are lettered in gold onto each limestone front of the stately Senate office buildings just across from the Capitol — honorifics reserved for an elite few.

There is the building named after Philip Hart, the Democrat from Michigan who was known as “the conscience of the Senate.” Connected to it is a second building named after Everett Dirksen, Republican of Illinois and a key player in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Standing alone is the Russell building, a telling divide for the structure’s namesake, Richard Brevard Russell Jr.

While Mr. Dirksen famously broke the Southern filibuster of the Civil Rights Act, allowing the landmark anti-discrimination legislation to pass, Senator Russell, a towering New Deal Democrat whose Senate career spanned four decades, led the filibuster that almost killed the bill, a show of defiance that underscored his strident support of racial segregation and white supremacy.

“We will resist to the bitter end,” Mr. Russell once told the Senate, “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.”

The Senate, spurred by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, is now weighing whether it should rechristen the building to honor Senator John McCain, who died Saturday. The calls tap into the paradoxes of the man whose name would be erased, an ardent New Dealer who helped start the free school lunch program, bolstered national defense, investigated the firing of General Douglas MacArthur, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy — and used the august Senate chamber to press the white supremacist’s cause.

“As one who was born and reared in the atmosphere of the Old South with six generations of my forebears now resting beneath Southern soil,” Mr. Russell wrote, “I am willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and insure white supremacy in the social, economic, and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.”

The push for a name change in Mr. McCain’s honor is only the latest in a wider, so far fruitless effort to rid the Capitol of the symbols of the nation’s confederate and Jim Crow past. The movement nationally to take down confederate statues has sparked protests and pride; so too in the Capitol have demands for the removal of paintings and statues of leaders who endorsed segregation and slavery — and pursued civil war.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, appeared ready to dodge the issue on Tuesday, announcing he would appoint a bipartisan group of senators to hash over ways to honor Mr. McCain, suggesting naming the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing room after him and commissioning a portrait for the stately Senate Reception Room, just off the Senate chamber.

“I’m glad we’ll be able to form this gang to ensure that a suitable, lasting tribute becomes a reality,” he said.

Such suggestions hint that Mr. Russell’s nameplate is safe for now. And he certainly has his backers.

“Richard Russell was from the south and, I’m sure, not perfect like George Washington and everyone else in his day,” said Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama who, like Mr. Russell, was once a conservative Democrat. “But he was a well-respected senator.”

Twice a presidential candidate, Mr. Russell was known for the ascendant political trajectory he charted from a young age. Elected to Georgia’s House of Representatives in 1921 at the age of 23, followed by a stint as the youngest ever governor of the state, Mr. Russell closed out his staggering career in the Senate, where he established himself as a venerable figure.

“He was almost universally regarded as being the most powerful member of the Senate,” Charles Bullock, the Richard B. Russell chair of political science at the University of Georgia, said. “He was the prototype of an insider powerful senator, a mover and shaker.”

The Russell Senate Building was named after him in 1972, a year after his death, proposed by Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who had joined Mr. Russell’s filibuster before becoming an advocate of civil rights. Mr. Byrd proposed naming the two buildings — then known as the new and old Senate office buildings — after Mr. Russell and Mr. Dirksen, both of whom had recently died.

Mr. Russell’s name still has resonance for some in the Capitol. Senator David Perdue, a Republican from Mr. Russell’s home state, advised reporters that any renaming of the building should be looked at “judiciously.”

But Mr. Russell’s legacy is marked by his deeply rooted belief in racial segregation in the name of maintaining the social order of “the Old South.” When his Senate seat was challenged in 1936, according to documents housed in his namesake library at the University of Georgia, he appealed to his constituents by arguing that, “this is a white man’s country, yes, and we are going to keep it that way.”

He was among a group of senators who successfully filibustered an anti-lynching bill shortly thereafter and, as the civil rights movement emerged in the 1960s, attempted to defeat the Civil Rights Act with the same procedure. Later in his life, the senator toned down his remarks and endorsed a “separate but equal” doctrine.

This week in the Senate, the proposal to rename the building in honor of Mr. McCain has picked up some bipartisan support, with Senator Jeff Flake, Mr. McCain’s fellow Republican senator from Arizona, offering to co-sponsor the bill.

“Russell is someone who was obviously a huge figure, but it is an era that has gone by. We are in a new era now,” Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, told reporters on Monday. “We were asked very quickly about it, and I think it’s a great idea.”

Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey and one of three African-American senators, said Monday that renaming the building after Mr. McCain “is something I could see myself supporting.”

Mr. Russell’s nephew, John Russell of Georgia, a retired attorney, has pushed back entirely on Mr. Schumer’s suggestion.

“To be judged by a standard of perfection is just not fair,” he told a Georgia-based media outlet. “He benefited our nation, and especially the south, a great deal.”