By Robert Mann
Sen. Richard Russell fought the civil rights laws of the 1960s with more passion and cunning than any member of Congress. For decades, as leader of Southern senators, the Georgia Democrat was intractable. In 1963, after President John F. Kennedy proposed a civil rights bill, Russell vowed to fight the bill “with every means and resource at my command.” And he did, leading a 54-day filibuster in the summer of 1964
Eventually, however, the Southerners failed. President Lyndon Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. And what did Russell do? Ever the patriot, he told his constituents, “I have no apologies to anyone for the fight I made. I only regret that we did not prevail.” Then, Russell made an astounding plea: “But these statutes are on the books, and it becomes our duty as good citizens to live with them.” Louisiana’s Russell Long did much the same. “I’ve been able to recognize that things move, they change and to adjust myself to a changing world,” he said, “and I think all Southerners will have to do that.”
I’ve been thinking recently about the responsible way a few Southern political leaders responded to the civil laws in the Sixties. Contrast that respect for the law with the shameful behavior of various Republican governors and members of Congress, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, who proudly thwart enforcement of the Affordable Care Act, legislation passed by Congress, signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court. Instead of heeding their inner Richard Russell, they channel another Georgia politician, Lester Maddox – an odious demagogue who persisted in denying the legitimacy of the civil rights laws.