As a conversation about race relations in America has been renewed across the country in recent weeks, many Americans have been willing to confront and talk about our nation’s complicated past and some of its ugliest chapters, as well as systemic issues that remain in effect today.
It’s unavoidable that these much-needed conversations will be uncomfortable, and it will be necessary for people to allow themselves to be uncomfortable if we’re ever going to make any real progress on healing the deep wounds of racism, build trust where it needs building and work toward a better tomorrow.
In addition to talking about how we treat and interact with each other, the federal government as well as local and state governments around the country are also having to reconsider the symbolism and historical context of various state flags, public monuments and markers, along with the names on public buildings. And that conversation has extended to the names on school buildings in many communities.
At some point, the Barrow County School System and school board may have to grapple with that very issue, given that one of the system's schools — Russell Middle School — is named for a man who believed in the idea of the white race as a superior one and used his political influence to try to advance that notion and resist a period of great, overdue change in America.
To its credit, the school system, like many others, took the time recently to denounce racism.
Here was the statement school officials issued earlier this month:
“In response to the ongoing social unrest around the country, the Barrow County School System would like you, our community, to know that we care deeply about our students, families and staff. Our sincerest hope is that you and your children feel valued and respected at BCSS. At this time, we particularly want our black students, families and staff to feel supported and know that you have a voice in our organization.
“We strongly believe that racism is wrong and unacceptable in any form. As educators, we believe that education is the great equalizer. Teaching and learning are fundamentally tied to positive and enduring relationships. Racism cannot be a part of any entity dedicated to education. The Barrow County School System is committed to listen, learn, provide support and engage in the work necessary to continue to contribute to making meaningful change.
“Our system vision is ‘Boldly Committed to Student Success.’ This means every student, every day, in every way possible, without exception. We can tolerate nothing less.”
That kind of statement is encouraging, but the authors are correct that there is still necessary work to be done. And while it has not been a highly-discussed topic in recent years as far as I can tell, the time has come for system officials and the school board to at least reconsider the name of Russell Middle, the legacy of its namesake, and the message it sends to some students, parents, teachers and staffers within the system for that particular honor to be bestowed upon him.
Richard Russell, the late Georgia governor and longtime U.S. senator, perhaps Barrow County’s most famous son, no doubt left a significant impact on the state and the Senate. Historians who have chronicled him will point to his influence on defense issues, legislative advocacy for New Deal-era programs, farm aid, and other things that had little or nothing to do with race. So it’s not a stretch that a school in the county might be named for him, and I’m not saying there was any malice or ill intent in that decision on anyone's part.
But while it wasn’t uncommon for politicians in this state and in this region of the country to hold them in his day in order to get elected in the first place, it’s impossible to ignore Russell’s views on race, his staunch advocacy of and push for segregationist policies (especially in regard to public schools) and his resistance to the advancement of people of color in their quest for equality.
In the weeks after former Sen. John McCain’s death in 2018, there was a brief call among many senators to rename the Russell Senate Building in Washington, D.C. in McCain’s honor. Russell’s support for segregation was a primary reason cited by proponents of having his name removed from the building. The chatter eventually died down, and almost two years later the building remains the Russell Senate Building.
In a 2018 piece advocating for the name change, Joshua Seitz, a contributing editor for Politico Magazine, wrote, “The decisions we make about naming official government buildings and spaces say much about our shared understanding of democratic values and citizenship. In this regard, Richard Russell is a poor fit for a diverse and modern nation.”
While Seitz goes on to note there were differences between Russell and his successor as governor, Eugene Talmadge, in their style of rhetoric when talking about race, the actual substance of their views was indistinguishable. Russell spent his entire career in the Senate fighting and advocating against civil rights legislation. Among those efforts, he filibustered anti-lynching legislation, voted against poll-tax bans and co-authored the 1956 “Southern Manifesto” against the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional. Russell and his fellow senators that signed on to the declaration set the tone for more than a decade of either the slow-walking of or outright refusal to integrate schools (in different parts of the country, but particularly in the South).
So, imagine that a class at Russell Middle School is assigned a history research project and a black student chooses to learn and write about the namesake of the school. What answer does the teacher or principal give when that student asks why his or her school is named after a man who didn’t believe people of his or her color were worthy to sit in the same classroom as white children? Were Russell’s views not a complete contradiction of the school system’s stated values today?
Russell is far from the only public figure in this state and country who was a racist and had buildings, roads, bridges, parks, etc. named after them. But when we're talking about a public school, where students and teachers and administrators of all different ethnicities and backgrounds attend and educate, should there not be a higher standard of commitment toward inclusion reflected in the name?
Yes, times have changed. Customs and norms have changed. We’re an ever-evolving country that has had to do a lot of growing up and it has often been ugly. We’re still a long way from where we need to be. There are old and ignorant prejudices that need to die with the past.
Neither Richard Russell nor any other politician or person was or has ever been perfect. But there are some issues of profound moral importance where true and just conviction is required — the most basic equality of humans being among them.
There were many other men in Russell’s time who held positions of power and shared his views, including his close friend Lyndon Johnson who evolved from his own racial prejudices to expand civil rights as president. Johnson and others made the choice to do the right thing.
When confronted with his own moments to take a stand on civil rights, Russell chose time and time again to be an impediment to progress.
As the Barrow County School System commits itself to being an agent of meaningful change, there should be a willingness among its leaders to ask if Russell's resistance to integration, so contrary to the fundamental ideas of public education and so out of step with the school system's mission today, is worth honoring.