“As one who was born and reared in the atmosphere of the Old South, with six generations of my forebears now resting beneath Southern soil, I am willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and ensure white supremacy in the social, economic and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.”
Fast forward to last week, when a largely White mob stormed the Capitol, hellbent on forcing legislators to nullify the votes of a lot of Black people.
Weren’t they also showing a willingness “to go as far and make as great a sacrifice” for the same cause as Russell?
A white marble statue of Russell stands in the rotunda of the building that bears his name, a glowing tribute to the lawmaker who used a pen and rhetoric to suppress the Black vote and wreak economic violence on Black people. The mob that breached the Capitol failed to continue his legacy, and now its members are being tracked down, arrested and charged by some of the people they allege to be fighting to protect.
The arrests allow America to condemn the rioters as simple-minded bigots or crazed conspiracy theorists while doing little about the people who emboldened them.
In an op-ed for The Washington Post on Monday, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wrote that “it is not enough to scrutinize — and prosecute — the domestic terrorists who attacked our Capitol. We all need to do some soul-searching of our own.”
And she asked a good question about the attack: “What does it say about us that so many were complicit, while those who sounded the alarm were dismissed as hysterical?” I’d be more precise: What does it say about White people that so many were complicit in ignoring warnings about Trump and his pandering to white nationalists? Why were the Black people who sounded the alarm dismissed as hysterical?
Because that’s the loop we’re stuck in. In too many instances when Black people express concern about the racism boiling among White people who believe they’ve been left behind — their disbelief, for instance, that income disparity or racially targeted school suspensions exist — the response is deflection or disagreement.
Clinton explained some of the dismissiveness, writing that “it’s hard to comprehend the danger of what seem like ridiculous conspiracy theories until you experienced that danger firsthand.”
But some people, including some of the nation’s top elected officials, felt that danger firsthand last week as a mob of mostly White men stormed the Capitol, assaulting police, breaking glass and wreaking havoc. And tens of thousands watched it unfold live on TV.
Next week, up to 15,000 National Guardsmen could be stationed in Washington, forming a protective ring around President-elect Joe Biden. Having selected a Black woman as his vice president and nominated the most diverse Cabinet in the nation’s history, Biden faces an elevated threat. He also delivered a strong rebuke of President Trump and his racist dog whistles that incited that Lost Cause riot at the Capitol.
But I’ve also heard Biden express admiration for some of the 1960s Southern segregationists who were still in the Senate when he was elected in 1972.
Those Dixiecrats opposed anti-lynching laws, favored poll taxes, orchestrated massive resistance to school desegregation, wanted to keep Black people at the back of the bus and out of White restaurants and hotels.
In fighting passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Russell told the Senate, “We will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our [Southern] states.”
Biden was particularly close to the notorious Sen. John Stennis of Mississippi, who signed the Southern Manifesto, which called for massive resistance to the Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools.
In an interview with the Jackson Free Press in 2019, Biden told a story that seemed to portend either imaginably bold moves to foster Black progression — or a colossal retreat.
Biden recalled a conversation that took place as Stennis was retiring, the Free Press said. At that meeting, Stennis put his hand on a table.
“You see this table and chair?” Biden recalled Stennis saying, according to the Free Press. “This table was the flagship of the Confederacy from 1954 to 1968. Senator (Richard B.) Russell had (representatives from) the Confederate states sit here every Tuesday to plan the demise of the Civil Rights Movement.”
“Then he looked at me,” Biden continued, “and I got chills when he said: ‘It’s time this table goes from the possession of a man against civil rights to a man for civil rights.’ ”
Biden will take office two weeks after the assault on the Capitol and the people inside. He has spent a lot of time talking about bringing the nation together. But maybe it’s time to do as Stennis said, and take the table away from those trying to divide and tear the country apart. Maybe it’s time to listen to those who’ve been sounding the alarm.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.