Ga. congressman seeks name change for Atlanta building
Rep. Hank Johnson points to lawmaker’s record on civil rights.
By Tamar Hallerman | firstname.lastname@example.org
ONLY IN THE AJC RICHARD B. RUSSELL FEDERAL BUILDING
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate’s current debate over Richard B. Russell’s namesake Capitol Hill office building has prompted a Georgia lawmaker to propose scrubbing the political giant’s name from another government building.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson thinks the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta, which is home to Georgia’s U.S. District Court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and several government outposts, should be renamed because of the former lawmaker’s legacy as a preeminent opponent of the civil rights movement.
“There are so many judges that building could be named after who have distinguished themselves throughout the history of Georgia,” the Lithonia Democrat said Wednesday. “There is no reason why we should continue to grace a (federal) office building after the name of an unabashed racist and one who turned a blind eye to terrorism against African-Americans.”
A former Georgia governor and longtime U.S. senator, Russell mentored presidents, created the school lunch program and brought multiple military bases to Georgia. But he was also a segregationist who used his mastery of the Senate’s rules to filibuster the 1964 Civil Rights Act and oppose bills banning lynching and abolishing the poll tax.
Johnson suggested renaming the federal building after Martin Luther King Jr. or Frank Minis Johnson, a federal judge who made several watershed civil rights rulings beginning in the 1950s. While Johnson is the most prominent person to endorse renaming the Atlanta building, he’s not the first.
Months after an avowed white supremacist was charged in the shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., AME church, Atlanta lawyer W. Matthew Dodge penned an op-ed in The Daily Report calling for a name change.
“For the sake of our citizens walking into a federal courthouse seeking justice, for the lawyers who work with them and for the countless public servants who work inside, we ought to pause a moment to consider what it means that Russell’s name is emblazoned across the front facade,” Dodge, an attorney with the Federal Defender Program, wrote in December 2015. “It is a confused, hostile message.”
Dodge said his op-ed inspired a debate segment on WABE and a rebuttal from former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, but little else. Several would-be Democratic allies on Capitol Hill, including Johnson, passed on the chance to help him, he said. (Congress has the authority to rename federal buildings.)
So Dodge said he was “heartened” by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s recent proposal to rename the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington for the late U.S. Sen. John McCain. But after gaining some initial traction, the proposal faced resistance from several Southern lawmakers, including Georgia U.S. Sen. David Perdue.
“This is a man who made tremendous contributions,” Perdue said of Russell. “In hindsight, today we can say he was wrong on any issue, but I think you’ve got to measure that in the full picture of his contributions, just like John McCain.”
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell eventually opted to create a bipartisan group to study ways to honor McCain’s legacy instead of endorsing the name change outright.
Dodge said he feared “we’re letting the loudest voices in the room kind of shut this down again.”
Even with Johnson’s support, renaming Atlanta’s federal building will not be easy, with Democrats in the minority in Washington and the president speaking out against political correctness in politics. Furthermore, not all Democrats are on the same page.
U.S. Rep. David Scott, D - Atlanta, thinks Russell’s name should stay on both buildings.
“I think we better be very, very careful, particularly when it comes to black American history, because our history will be lost without the recognition of slavery, the recognition of our achievements to end it... (and) segregation,” Scott, who is African-American, said Thursday. “If you erase it, you don’t have the story to tell.”
RICHARD B. RUSSELL JR. (1897-1971)
■ Russell served in public office for 5 0 years as a state legislator, governor of Georgia and U.S. senator.
■ Russell was the leader of Southern senators who opposed civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
■ Russell helped to secure or maintain 15 military installations in Georgia and more than 25 research facilities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
■ Russell believed that his most important legislative contribution was the National School Lunch Program in 1946.