David Bennett is a professor emeritus of American history at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Matt Bennett, his son, is co-founder and senior vice president of the Third Way think tank.
Perhaps the most coveted workspace in Washington — that isn’t oval, at least — sits in a beautiful Beaux- Arts building on Constitution Avenue. It’s got a rotunda ringed by Corinthian columns, curved marble staircases and golden eagles. It has been home to some of the most famous hearings in Senate history: the investigations of the Titanic sinking and the Teapot Dome scandal, the Truman Commission and the Army-McCarthy, Teamsters and Watergate hearings.
Yet this extraordinarily important building is named for one whose historical legacy is unworthy of such an honor: the late senator Richard B. Russell (D-Ga.).
It is time to rename this precious building for someone more deserving. We suggest Ted Kennedy.
The nation has arrived at a landmark set of anniversaries for the civil rights era. Fifty years ago, Congress enacted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. This progress was made possible by the Bloody Sunday march in Selma and countless other acts of courage and selflessness. The world stood witness to a movement that used strict nonviolence and enormous moral force to bring about extraordinary change.
The civil rights era had clearly drawn heroes and villains. The heroes, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine, are properly celebrated. But the villains also must be subject to history’s judgment. And it isn’t just the Klan, Bull Connor and the other thugs who unleashed violence upon innocents that deserve censure. We must remember their allies in Congress, who did their best to derail the laws that we now regard as bedrocks of justice.
Those congressional villains took on different stripes. Some, like Mississippi’s James Eastland, used racist language on the Senate floor and made no effort to spray perfume on the stench of their bigotry. But others, like Russell, were more refined. As historian Robert Mann has noted, the gentleman from Georgia was polite and courtly. But Russell not only filibustered civil rights legislation for decades, he twice proposed a bill of his own for a federal commission that would relocate African Americans living in the South to other parts of the United States. His core legislative legacy was built on massive resistance to racial equality.
By contrast, Kennedy, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, built his legacy upon inclusiveness and compassion. He served his state for 46 years from his office in the Russell Building. Kennedy rose to power in the Senate, serving in leadership and as chairman of three important committees. And he got things done: He was instrumental in the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the creation of Americorps and the success of countless other education, health-care and social-welfare bills. There is little doubt that his decades of work made possible the Affordable Care Act, the pinnacle of health-reform efforts that Kennedy had championed since the 1960s.
On civil rights, too, Kennedy was a vital Senate player. Though still reeling from the murder of his brother in Dallas, Kennedy took to the floor of the Senate on April 9, 1964, to demand an end to Russell’s filibuster of the Civil Rights Bill: “My brother was the first president of the United States to state publicly that segregation was morally wrong. . . . If his life and death had a meaning, it was that we should not hate but love one another; we should use our powers not to create conditions of oppression that lead to violence, but conditions of freedom that lead to peace.”
Moreover, in this time of partisan gridlock in Congress, it would serve all of us well to pause to remember a senator who knew how to both fight for his principles and to set party aside in the name of progress. As his close friend Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative from Utah, has written: “Ted was a lion among liberals, but he was also a constructive and shrewd lawmaker. He never lost sight of the big picture and was willing to compromise on certain provisions in order to move forward on issues he believed important.”
Kennedy has been gone for more than five years. While the names of his brothers adorn large Washington edifices, his name has not yet received that kind of historical treatment. So we believe Congress has a choice for the big beauty at the corner of Constitution and Delaware: Keep the name of an avowed segregationist who stood in the way of racial progress? Or rename it for a consummate senator — a liberal lion, civil rights champion and bipartisan deal-maker. The choice is clear: It’s time to christen the Edward Moore Kennedy Senate Office Building.