Confederate statues are coming down everywhere. Mississippi changed its flag. In the U.S. Capitol itself, statues of slavers and other white supremacists are being replaced. Virginia removed Robert E. Lee in 2020 and replaced him with Black civil rights activist Barbara Johns.
And yet, by far the most conspicuous remaining symbol of white supremacy on Capitol Hill still exists. People hardly ever talk about it. And it isn’t just a statue—it’s a whole building.
Senator Richard Brevard Russell Jr. was a remorseless bigot during his 38 years on Capitol Hill. The Georgia Democrat was an outspoken opponent of anti-lynching bills, school desegregation, and the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. In 1957, Russell set the record for the Senate’s longest filibuster by speaking for 24 hours and 18 minutes against the Civil Rights Act, a version of which would pass seven years later despite the senator’s best efforts.
A year after Russell’s death in 1971, his colleagues renamed the Old Senate Office Building after the racist lawmaker. It’s a decision that could be revisited by the Senate anytime it wants to. “I’m a strong supporter of renaming the Russell Senate Office Building,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told The New Republic last week. “In fact, I proposed to rename it after Senator John McCain shortly after his passing in 2018. There was some bipartisan support back then but not enough, and any effort to make this a reality now would need Republican cooperation.”
But Schumer’s view is not widely shared. “No,” said Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, when asked if she supported naming the Russell building for McCain. (She did not elaborate.) Other Senate Republicans, like Chuck Grassley and Ted Cruz, bristled more candidly at the notion of changing the Capitol complex in ways that are less racist. “They ought to find another building to name someone else after,” said Grassley, who served for over three decades with McCain in the Senate GOP conference. “This whole thing about changing history for some reasons that are just now in somebody’s mind, that something was wrong that wasn’t wrong 30 years ago or 50 years ago, is not a reason to change the name of a building.”
Cruz echoed the Iowa Republican in decrying efforts to “sanitize history,” as he put it. “The journey of the United States has been a steady journey toward freedom. It has been an imperfect journey to be sure but the radicals who want to erase George Washington and Thomas Jefferson from our nation’s history fundamentally disagree with our founding principles and I count myself alongside those, like the great Frederick Douglass, who understood that our founding principles lead inevitably toward liberation,” said Cruz, whom McCain despised so much he nicknamed the Texas Republican “wacko bird” to Senate colleagues.