Published in The Weekly Standard
Sherrod Brown was one of nine senators who addressed a luncheon on May 25 celebrating Jewish American Heritage Month. He spent the majority of his time at the podium, not surprisingly and not unlike most of his colleagues, extolling the American Jewish community for its contributions to the civil rights movement as well as its ongoing commitment to social justice. Seemingly as an impromptu aside, though certainly in sync with his feisty oration on the reformist spirit, he insisted that the Russell Senate Office Building—the building in which the luncheon was taking place—be renamed, because it’s dedicated to a segregationist: Richard Russell Jr., who represented Georgia in the U.S. Senate from 1933 until his death in 1971. (There are two other Senate office buildings on Capitol Hill, Dirksen and Hart, honoring the late senators Everett Dirksen of Illinois and Philip Hart of Michigan.)
Senator Brown, an Ohio Democrat, is not the first to suggest that the splendid Beaux-Arts edifice on Constitution Avenue ought to commemorate someone whose public service record better reflects America’s immutable ideals. A handful of appeals to rename the Russell building arose last year in the months preceding the lowering of the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse grounds. For example, there was a Washington Post op-ed by David Bennett, professor emeritus of American history at Syracuse University, and Matt Bennett, his son and cofounder of Third Way, a Washington think tank. They proposed that the name of Senator Russell, whose “core legislative legacy was built on massive resistance to racial equality,” be replaced by that of the late Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, who “built his legacy upon inclusiveness and compassion.”
Similarly, journalist and author Michael Tomasky, in a piece for the Daily Beast, made the case for ditching Russell, “the archenemy of civil rights,” and renaming the building for Senator Bob Dole of Kansas, “a good man” who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and later worked on civil rights for the disabled. To his credit, Tomasky, in contrast to others who opined on the matter, also sought—however briefly—to understand why the “Old Senate Office Building,” which opened in 1909, was renamed for Russell in 1972. “Such were the times that his racism could be contextualized as an understandable and forgivable flaw,” Tomasky offered. “Maybe it’s still understandable, given the time and place of his birth and rearing.”
Yet Tomasky, somewhat conveniently, avoided reference to the seven-foot, Carrara-marble statue of Richard Russell in the building’s rotunda. If Russell’s name should be scrubbed from the building, then shouldn’t his likeness be hauled away too? Surely, the statue of (in Tomasky’s phrase) “a racist who spent 30 years making sure black children went to inferior schools” ought not be allowed to stand in that stately space, which hosts an inestimable number of visitors from near and far each year. In 2003, a group did in fact call upon the Senate to pass a resolution not just to change the Russell building’s name, but also to cart off the statue. The group, Change the Name, was organized by civil rights activist Dick Gregory and gained national attention. “The symbol of this man on a building is not going to be tolerated,” Gregory said. Plainly, he met with little success—for both the name and statue remain.
Conversely, the 1972 resolution to dedicate the Old Senate Office Building to Russell, authored by the late senators Robert Byrd and Howard Baker, encountered barely any opposition, passing by a vote of 99-1. (The holdout was Senator Philip Hart, who cautioned that it was “unwise to anticipate history’s verdict” of those who had served in the Senate.) Today, not a few will ask in exasperation: How could all those elected officials in that prestigious upper chamber—from both the North and the South and from both parties—have been so insensitive to the vast historic suffering of African Americans? How could they not have grasped that venerating Russell in such a grand way would send an awful message to future generations about what principles our country cherishes? It’s possible—and Tomasky intimated this—that America’s racial attitudes hadn’t changed all that much in the years closely following the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
But what about that solitary and imposing statue in the building’s rotunda? It was unveiled in 1996, nearly a quarter-century after the building was renamed. Was America still that bigoted then? That was the year that Whoopi Goldberg hosted the 68th Academy Awards, that the Chicago Bulls, with Michael Jordan, won their fourth NBA championship and the admiration of millions, and that athletes of all colors from across the world were welcomed with open arms in Atlanta to compete in the Summer Olympics.
What’s more, the unveiling of the statue of Senator Russell on January 24, 1996, was far from a subdued affair. It was accompanied by ceremonies and speeches from, among other leading public servants, Vice President Al Gore. Gore lauded Russell at length for both his professional accomplishments and personal attributes. “Dick Russell,” he avowed, “had a heart of gold and was one of the most honorable individuals ever to serve in the United States Senate throughout its more than 200-year history.” That’s quite a different picture from the one painted by the letter that Change the Name sent to senators in 2003. “More than any other senator of his time,” the letter read, “Richard Russell violated individual rights, jeopardized orderly democratic procedure, and extended victimization to an already oppressed group of U.S. citizens. Americans suffered and died because of Richard Russell’s words and deeds.” Further affronting the modern conscience, Gore avoided mention of racism and segregation.
Senator Robert Byrd spoke on that occasion, as well, waxing poetic about Russell’s life and career and sliding past the repugnant stuff—that is, other than claiming “constitutionalism” was “the main force behind [Russell’s] opposition to what were popularly known then as civil rights acts.” Byrd, of course, was a West Virginia Democrat who was also once a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Though he reportedly left the white supremacist organization in 1943 (the actual date of departure remains a source of dispute), he still attempted to block the Civil Rights Act in 1964 with a 14-hour filibuster. Perhaps his shortcomings too might be “contextualized,” as Tomasky wrote about Russell. But should Gore also be afforded leniency? He was educated at the finest schools (St. Albans and Harvard). He knew Russell personally when he was a young man. And his own father, Al Gore Sr., was a Democratic senator from Tennessee who partook in Byrd’s Civil Rights Act filibuster and served alongside Senator Russell for 32 years. So what gives?
America is undoubtedly far more committed to celebrating racial diversity in 2016 than it was in 1996, let alone in 1972. Yet it seems that the nature of the country’s moral compass (or at least the moral compass of the country’s elites) has changed too—and not necessarily always for the better. To today’s typical progressive, it’s inconceivable that the 99 senators who backed the 1972 resolution to rename the Old Senate Office Building after Russell weren’t supremely prejudiced, morally obtuse, or both. It’s unthinkable that the dignitaries who praised Russell in 1996 when his marble likeness was unveiled on Capitol Hill weren’t utterly insensitive. It’s not plausible that these distinguished persons, while well aware of Russell’s serious failings, concluded that there is value to considering man as a whole, that imperfection is what renders man human. Gore emphasized in his speech Russell’s “lasting influence” in “bringing electricity to rural America, getting loans for Georgia’s farmers, making sure that poor children could eat a decent lunch at school.” For Gore, these efforts—no doubt more so than Russell’s reduction of bureaucracy and promotion of a robust national defense—provided indisputable evidence of “love of country, devotion to duty, respect for principles.”
The practice of altering—or tearing down, in rare cases—memorials deemed unsuited to the temper of the times is worn territory. But it has reached unprecedented levels in our era of “tolerance,” an era exemplified by sensitivity training, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. Pressure has built to rename, in higher education alone, Tillman Hall at Clemson University (named for Governor “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a white supremacist who was among the institution’s founders); Calhoun College at Yale University (named for another South Carolinian, John C. Calhoun, who infamously argued that slavery was a “positive good”); and Lynch Hall, named after former college president Clyde A. Lynch, at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, simply because the word “lynch” can have racial connotations. Last year, Georgetown University, on the recommendation of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, opted to rename two buildings named for school presidents “who organized the sale of Jesuit-owned slaves to help pay off campus debt in the 1830s,” as the Washington Post reported.
Maybe all these structures, as well as the Russell Senate Office Building, should be renamed. That being said, the demands to rename—and the motivations underpinning the demands—are also deserving of scrutiny. For the most part, they have been ad hoc and largely indifferent to the wider and lasting moral standards that would be set by “success.” Of course, it would be preposterous to expect that some type of objective formula might be devised to render judgment on the fates of supposedly iniquitous memorials. But at a minimum, it’s worth a sober consideration of questions raised by these efforts to unremember aspects of our history.
For one, if, say, a distinguished name somewhere in the country is erased from a building or monument because of an association with racial inequality, should similar examples be set from coast to coast? Last year, CNN anchor Don Lemon floated the notion of modifying the Jefferson Memorial because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. “There may come a day when we want to rethink Jefferson,” he told colleague Ashleigh Banfield. “I don’t [know] if we should do that, but when we get to that point, I’ll be happy to partake in that particular discussion.” But what justification does Lemon have for not rethinking the Jefferson Memorial now? One suspects that he, and rightly so, may have weighed Jefferson’s virtues against Jefferson’s vices—and ruled positively. Yet if Jefferson is to be afforded this measured calculation, why not Senator Russell? There might be obvious reasons, but what are they?
In the wake of Lemon’s comment, PJ Media hit the streets of Washington, video camera in hand, to gather the thoughts of local residents. One said the Jefferson Memorial “should come down” and further suggested that Washington itself might be renamed because George Washington, like Jefferson, owned slaves. He also supported changing the American flag because it’s “based on a lot of mass killings and slavery.” According to this logic, why should Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman be let off the hook? Many may feel that the internment of 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were among the most egregious human rights violations in American history. Should Roosevelt’s and Truman’s names therefore be effaced from the countless schools and bridges and other edifices they adorn across the country? Even nonradical leftists will have a difficult time coming up with an answer for their inconsistent approach to latter-day judgments of historical figures. Such hesitation should be admired rather than mocked, as it indicates awareness of the very slippery slope with which we’re dealing.
Another vital question rarely tackled when it comes to redressing the injustices of the past: Who possesses the authority to determine what’s too revolting to the public palate? Last year, the Austin Independent School District Board in Austin, Texas, received requests from the community to rename Robert E. Lee Elementary. Members of the board then asked for recommendations but pointed out they would have the final say. In late May, in an 8-1 vote, they picked “Russell Lee Elementary” as the school’s new name. (Lee was a chronicler of Great Depression poverty and founder of the University of Texas-Austin’s photography program.) So what were the recommendations from the same community that was purportedly distraught by “Robert E. Lee Elementary”? “Donald J. Trump Elementary” garnered the most nominations, 45. And check this out: “Robert E. Lee Elementary” was the runner-up with 34 nominations. (Progressivism, it appears, has yet to fully suppress the taste for sarcasm.)
The United States is a federal republic, not a pure democracy, so there tends to be mediated representation at most levels of society. Yet what happened in Austin leads one to wonder who exactly is offended and how widespread the offense is in certain situations. When does a claim of emotional or mental harm warrant attention? Is it about content or numbers, or both?
What renaming controversies most vividly reveal is that progressives—and it’s almost always progressives due to their perennial discomfort with the past—distrust individuals. They have little confidence in the capacity of citizens to learn from history what they consider to be the proper lessons of history. (In fact, they distrust citizens to make decisions in general, which is why they so frequently employ the state to impose top-down, pre-engineered schemes upon society.) They fear that remembering particular aspects of the past is dangerous, because remembering might lead to emulation. What they seek instead is to immaculately curate the public and private realms in which we live out our daily lives. Yet in a cleansed moral environment, families, communities, and voluntary associations would be denied the opportunity to explain to succeeding generations, in their own chosen ways, the complexities of yesteryear. A public square cleansed of all aspects of the past of which we now disapprove would also preclude the type of discussion that inspires empathy, introspection, and attention to nuance.
And what if, hypothetically, we could expunge all that offends us? Would we be pleased with the result? Lois Lowry’s bestselling 1993 novel, The Giver, answered with a definitive “no,” as did the late Kenneth Minogue, who stressed in a 2009 essay for the American Conservative, “perfection, by its nature, destroys the possibility of progress.” Indeed, in a society uncontaminated by the past, there would be no way of assessing how far we’ve come. With an absence of signs of and testaments to trials and tribulations, there would be no feeling for triumph and tragedy. There would be no sense of direction. We would be eternally moving through a motionless and an emotionless present.