Group Still Needs Sponsor to Remove Russell Name

Posted February 4, 2003 at 6:20pm

Calling the dedication of a Senate office building to the memory of Sen. Richard Russell (R-Ga.) an “insult” that will not be tolerated, comedian and social activist Dick Gregory told reporters Tuesday he has “no doubt” the name will be changed in the near future.

“If there’s any one person single-handedly who’s blocked anti-lynching legislation, it would be Richard Russell,” Gregory said, explaining why he is leading the effort to have the Russell Senate Office Building renamed. “It’s just an insult to have a building named after a man with that sort of record.”

Gregory, who is the front man for a newly organized group called Change the Name, wrote to all 100 Senators last month explaining his charge to remove Russell’s name and statue from what was once known as the Old Senate Office Building because of the Senator’s unrepentant, and well-documented, racist views.

“From 1920 to 1950, African-Americans repeatedly petitioned Congress for protection against lynching,” Gregory wrote. “For 15 years Richard Russell led or participated in every effort to defeat proposed anti-lynching legislation in the Senate.”

Martin Luther King III, son of the slain civil rights leader and current president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote a letter this month supporting Gregory’s efforts and stating that Russell “represented a part of history that future generations need not perpetuate.”

“The late Senator’s campaign against anti-lynching legislation is all too clear as we remember the Emitt Tills of yesteryear,” King stated, referring to the black 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 by a group of white men after whistling at a white woman.

Change the Name hopes to get the Senate to pass a resolution to rename the building sometime this month, but no one has yet stepped up to sponsor the legislation.

“To this date, we have not gotten a response from any Senator to this request,” said Mark Planning, spokesman for Change the Name.

Gregory predicts that may soon change. This week, Gregory and his allies kicked their campaign to rename the Russell Building into high gear, beginning with a news conference at the National Press Club.

At the event, the 70-year-old Gregory mimicked some of the classic stand-up routines that made him famous in the 1950s as he joked about Black History Month.

“Wouldn’t you know when they gave us a month it would be the month with all the days missing?” Gregory said, as he also poked fun at Groundhog Day and charmed the crowd with his unique brand of humor.

Returning to the serious matter at hand, Gregory declared that he is in for the long haul and devoted to getting Russell’s name removed from Capitol Hill.

When asked by a reporter why he wasn’t going after the 11 statues of Confederate generals located around the Capitol, Gregory replied that he’ll get to that eventually.

“That’s going to happen. … Little by little people chip away and chip away,” Gregory said, noting how women’s groups had fought and won battles against sexism, including to have hurricanes named after both men and women.

“It will even get to the point that ‘manhole’ is going to go too,” Gregory said.

Gregory denied that his cause is in any way connected to the recent controversy involving Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who resigned as Majority Leader after making remarks at former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) birthday party that many deemed racially insensitive.

Gregory said Change the Name was already laying the groundwork for the Russell Building effort well before the Lott controversy unfolded.

Gregory and others in his organization plan to contact House Members who belong to the Congressional Black Caucus later this month to try to rally more support. Presently, there are no black Senators.

CBC member Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer earlier this month that she supports Gregory’s efforts, but member Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said he wasn’t interested in getting involved in the battle.

“We’d have to bring a wheelbarrow into the Capitol to load up the statutes of people who were anti-African-American,” Lewis told the Post-Intelligencer. “To get sidetracked by the name of someone who was a racist is not a fight I’d be prepared to fight.”

When asked why he thought the Senate had voted 99-1 in 1972 to name the Old Senate Office Building after Russell, Gregory said he thought it was a simple matter of not being completely informed of the facts.

“All they knew is he was a fantastic legislator. He was a master. That’s all they knew,” Gregory said.

For years, lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to remove J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the Washington FBI headquarters.

For Gregory, it’s all a simple no-brainer.

“If I was in Germany and saw a building named after Adolf Hitler,” he said, “I’d know something nasty was going on inside of that building.”