Long shadow of Civil War politics falls on McCain memorial debate

America Letter: Proposal to rename building taps into broader cultural debate

In the debate about how to commemorate John McCain, one idea quickly too hold: renaming the Russell Senate Building in Washington, DC,  after the late senator. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In the debate about how to commemorate John McCain, one idea quickly too hold: renaming the Russell Senate Building in Washington, DC, after the late senator. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 

The bustling hallways of the US Capitol came to a standstill on Friday as John McCain made his final trip to an institution where he spent much of his life.

The body of the six-term senator, a towering figure in the US Senate, lay in state throughout the day beneath the domed rotunda, as colleagues, political dignitaries and members of the public paid their respects.

On Saturday, the long goodbye to the much-loved war hero will continue. In the morning, his cortege will pass by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Washington Mall, a nod to McCain’s service in the conflict which saw him detained as a prisoner of war.

Bypassing the White House, the motorcade will travel on to Washington National Cathedral in the northwest of the city, where former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama – both former political rivals – will lead tributes to the late senator for Arizona at a funeral service.

The death of McCain has prompted an outpouring of grief and a period of soul-searching in the United States, as the country reflects on questions of leadership, heroism and integrity in these troubled political times.

But his death has also prompted a more practical consideration of how the late senator should be remembered – a question that has touched on contentious issues of race.

Renaming building

Debate about how to commemorate McCain began within hours of his death, but by Monday one particular idea had taken hold – renaming the Russell Senate Building after the late senator.

The Russell Building is one of three office buildings next to the US Capitol where much of the day-to-day work of Congress is done. The building was named after Richard Russell, a Democratic senator from Georgia who died in 1971. His career in the Senate spanned four decades. But while he was well-known as a New Deal Democrat, who helped champion social programmes such as the free school lunch, Russell was also a segregationist.

A staunch opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he repeatedly used the Senate filibuster to block civil rights legislation. His aim was to uphold the system of racial segregation in the South. “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,” he once said, “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.”

That Russell was a Democrat is a reminder of how far the policy positions of America’s two main political parties have shifted. Up until the second World War it was the Republican Party, founded as an anti-slavery party, that was more committed to civil rights issues, not the Democrats. President Lyndon Johnson was well aware of the political implications of his party embracing civil rights. On signing the Civil Rights Act he famously said: “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Senate resolution

The proposal to rename the Russell building has been championed by Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, who introduced a resolution in the Senate. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell delayed a decision on the issue, instead announcing the formation of a bipartisan committee to look at ways to honour McCain.

Some senators from Georgia – where Russell’s name still adorns many public buildings – were lukewarm on the issue. But while a decision is unlikely to be imminent, it didn’t stop the idea taking hold in the public imagination. For a brief period on Wednesday, Google users who searched for the Russell Senate Office Building on Google Maps were instead directed to the McCain Senate Office Building.

The debate about renaming the Russell building taps into a broader cultural debate about how to deal with America’s painful legacy on slavery and civil rights. The controversy over Confederate statues – which came to the surface recently with the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville protests – is far from settled. While some cities and counties have moved to remove statues to those who fought for the Confederate south in the Civil War, hundreds of statues to Confederate generals are still standing across the South, including in Charlottesville.

Perhaps it will take someone like John McCain, a man who served to unify the nation more than any other figure in recent political memory, to convince the US Senate to do the right thing and rename the Russell building after a true American hero rather than an avowed segregationist.

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