E. Faye Williams: What’s in a name?

by Dr. E. Faye Williams, Esq.

(TriceEdneyWire.com)—Answering the question “What’s in a name?” is more than a rhetorical exercise. Like all words, names evoke feelings and create emotions on the strength of what they represent or symbolize.

Two decades ago, the late civil rights activist Dick Gregory and I began “Change the Name,” a campaign to remove the Richard Russell designation from the original Senate Office Building. What followed was a disappointment. To quote a 2009 U.S. Senate Historical Office publication entitled Russell Senate Office Building: The First Century:

In 2003 a group called “Change the Name” made a case for removing Senator Russell’s name and statue from the Senate Office Building because of his leadership in favor of racial segregation during his long Senate career, but the Senate had named the building for reasons other than the policies he advocated. Recognizing him as a man of his times, representing the prevailing sentiments of his state, they honored him for his strength of character as a “senator’s senator”.

The claim that “… the Senate had named the building for reasons other than the policies he advocated,” is political double-talk. “Advocating policies” is central to the duties of a United States Senator. Russell’s personal and public policies were so intertwined as to be inseparable. When this statement was issued, the racism imbued in Russell’s policies was as well-known on Capitol Hill as it was throughout the nation.

In 2003, Dick Gregory, Janet Langhart Cohen and I walked the halls of the Senate with a report that chronicled Russell’s Senate career. The over-200 page report is summarized in two sentences: (1) Russell was an unrepentant, White supremacist who blocked every House-passed anti-lynching bill that came before the Senate, and (2) he either opposed, weakened, or delayed passage of every civil rights measure for his entire Senate career.  Unlike many senators from southern states who eventually reversed their opposition to civil rights, Russell never did.

The Senate Office Building is one of the most historic structures in America. As important as it is, its Russell name belies any hope of African Americans expecting fair treatment from policy-makers. The contemporary defense of Russell’s career calls into question how objectively the Senate can represent the nation.

Unlike Russell, Clementa Pinckney was a unifier. He represented the best of being an American. As a state Senator from South Carolina and Pastor of historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, he dedicated his legislative career and ministry to supporting basic human rights. He lost his life to racist violence in defense of his deeply held American principles.

Although Senator Pinckney never served as a United States Senator, that, arguably, is only because his life was cut short. It is speculated that had he lived, “he would have become known— and celebrated—for his leadership.” I completely agree!

Since our renaming defeat nearly 20 years ago, names of former Senators have been offered for consideration for a renaming. These include Edward Kennedy, Robert Dole, Margaret Chase Smith and, most recently, John McCain. None, apparently, has received majority acceptance of the Senate’s membership. While there is agreement that the Russell name must change, Senators cannot agree on a designee from their own ranks.

For that reason, I offer a name change from a Southern Democrat to a GREAT Southern Democrat. Renaming the building for Senator Clementa Pinkney will affirm most American’s belief that racial justice isn’t, or shouldn’t be, a political issue. Like the late Dick Gregory, everything that Senator Pinkney stood for came from a place of light, and that is what is needed today, now more than ever.

(Dr. E. Faye Williams is National  Co-President of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc.)

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