February 13, 2024

1957. Senator Richard B. Russell Rejects Criticism of South on Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Act of 1957
"Lyndon B. Johnson (left) and Richard Russell (right) in 1963. The two Democrats were on opposing sides in the argument around the 1957 Civil Rights Act" (source)

Transcript of "Capitol Cloakroom" entered into the Congressional Record on July 10, 1957 (PDF):


(Broadcast over the CBS Radio Network, July 8, 1957, 9:30 to 10 p. m.—guest: The Honorable Richard B. Russell, United States Senate, Democrat, of Georgia—CBS news correspondents: Griffin Bancroft, Bill Downs, Paul Niven—producer: Michael Marlow)

GRIFFIN BANCROFT: Senator Russell, will there be a real showdown on civil rights?

BILL DOWNS: Senator, would this bill really punish the South?

PAUL NIVEN: Senator, would the South accept a compromise on civil rights?

BANCROFT: Senator Russell, welcome to "Capitol Cloakroom." One of the real veterans here, you have been in the United States Senate now for more than 24 years.

And right now you are the leader of the southern Senators in this current battle over civil rights. So let's start with that.

Do you think this time there will be a real showdown on civil rights?

SENATOR RUSSELL: Well, there is, of course, a very decided disposition to press this bill which is titled a civil-rights bill to a conclusion in this session of the Congress. Now we have a very attractive habit here of labeling bills, sometimes, when they don't always live up to their label.

But if you are referring to the bill that is now being discussed on the floor of the Senate, it is apparent that a very determined effort will be made to force a legislative conclusion on that measure.

BANCROFT: Well, we want to ask you what might happen on that, but first, you say whether this should properly be called a civil-rights bill.

RUSSELL: Well, in some of its aspects it is more of a force bill aimed at the customs and laws of the South that were upheld for a hundred years than it is a civil-rights bill.

It has been presented to the public generally as being a bill to assure the right to vote. But as a matter of fact that is the mildest of all the provisions of the bill.

DOWNS: Well, Senator, there was a coalition of so-called liberal Republicans and liberal northern Democrats that got this bill to the floor in the first place.

What happens to the conservative coalition among southerners and conservative Republicans under these circumstances?

RUSSELL: Well, I don't know just exactly what that term "coalition" implies. At times it seems to be used as a term of condemnation or derision.

In times past when some of the southern Democrats have voted with the Republicans not to move quite as fast in some areas as some of our Democratic Presidents would have had us to move, that's been called a coalition between southern Democrats—Mr. Reuther and his crowd always said Dixiecrats without regard to how loyal we had been to the Democratic Party—and the reactionary Republicans.

We do have a most unusual coalition this time in that the Republican leadership has joined hands with some of our very liberal friends, such as Senator Douglas and Senator Humphrey and others to force this bill to a conclusion.

But, then, politics makes strange bedfellows. In this case we undoubtedly have a game where the South is a mere pawn on the political checkerboard. The minority groups have apparently convinced the leadership of both parties that the party that is willing to wage the furthest punitive expedition into the South will win the Presidency in 1960.

NIVEN: Senator, some Republicans have charged and northern Democrats have denied that there was a deal in the voting over the procedure of the civil-rights bill and the Hells Canyon bill.

RUSSELL: Yes; I saw that in the press. If there is anything to that, I have no knowledge of it. I saw the article.

I happen to be one of the five Democrats who changed his vote on Hells Canyon. I did it because of the tax amortization feature which made it very apparent that the Federal Government was going to pay for the dam in any event. If we were going to pay for it, I thought we ought to have title to it.

NIVEN: But you did not offer and were not offered any kind of deal?

RUSSELL: No; there was no deal in any sense I know of. I hope, however, such a thing as appreciation still exists even in the Senate of the United States where any citizen. Senator finds that he can out of his heart do so to vote to make this bill a tolerable bill or a reasonable bill and not a force bill, that they will vote for amendments.

I hope that the purpose of this charge was not to frighten the true liberals in the Senate who will support, for example a jury-trial amendment.

We have a very anomalous situation when so-called liberals are trying to abolish the right of trial by jury, as is being done in this bill.

BANCROFT: Well, Senator Russell, if there was a deal made, you apparently lost it anyway, because the bill went on the calendar over your objections. 

RUSSELL: Yes; and very frankly, when I saw the coalition that was there—that I called the Knowland-Douglas-Humphrey axis—I had very little hopes of getting a majority vote. I did make a fight because I believe in orderly procedure in the Senate, by just such charges as that, that the whole and I did not think that the procedure that was followed was orderly, and we are paying If it is not a civil-rights bill, what is it? the penalty for it right now.

We put the bill on the calendar and it comes out later that there's been an error in the print of the bill that was sent over that they are undertaking to correct today.

When you get away from established precedents in the Senate, when you try to take shortcuts for temporary advantage, it nearly always brings a great deal of trouble.

BANCROFT: Well, now, coming back just one moment to this bill, President Eisenhower, who claims that this is a moderate bill and who says at least his principle desire is to protect voting rights has expressed some surprise at your statement, I believe, about how far you think this bill could go.

And there was some talk that you might have a conference with the President to talk about this. Is there any conference now set for you at the White House?

RUSSELL: Well, now you ought to go back to what you were talking about—

BANCROFT: All right.

RUSSELL: Before you get down to that.

President Eisenhower also stated that he had gotten out the bill and tried to read it and had found some of its provisions very confusing.

BANCROFT: That is right.

RUSSELL: An I may say that he has a great deal of company, because it is a very adroitly and cunningly drafted bill.

I have no comment to make on the other because I am of the old school, came up here at a time when Senators didn't go out and make an announcement they were trying to get down to the White House or were invited to the White House.

I would only say that I earnestly hope that I may have an opportunity to discuss this bill with President Eisenhower, either personally or with any legal adviser that he wants there, to show him that the right-to- vote provision in this bill is the least momentous of all its provisions.

DOWNS: Well, Senator, you said that in the case of jury trial, in demanding a jury trial in voting rights cases, for example, that this bill should contain that provision. 


DOWNS: Isn't it true, sir, that in the South, and hasn't it been proved in the South, that when you have an all-white jury voting on the rights of a Negro voter, that he doesn't have much of a chance of winning?

RUSSELL: Well, that's one of the common slanders that's been repeated against the South without a word of evidence to substantiate it. You have got any number of criminal statutes on your books now where it is made a violation of criminal law, punishable by imprisonment and fine, to interfere with the voting rights of any citizen.

Now the South is entitled to have at least threat in the bill. some proof brought forward of this charge that is repeatedly bandied that every southern white man is so irresponsible that he would forswear himself or perjure himself in a case involving a Negro citizen.

I practiced law for many years before I came into the Senate, and I did not find that to be true. And we were at least entitled, before a whole great section of this country was indicted as everyone of us being perjurers, we were at least entitled to have the Attorney General come out and say, "Here, I tried to get an indictment in this case before a grand jury for a violation of a right to vote, and I didn't get an indictment," or if "I did get an indictment," that the jury "didn't do justice."

They haven't done that; they have just gone on this wave of public sentiment, this anti-Southern feeling that has been built up by just such charges as that, that the whole white South would just forswear themselves. 

As a matter of fact, there is no great problem about the Negro voting in the South today. In my own State, and that's the only one I have personal knowledge of, there's no limitation or prohibition on the right of qualified Negroes to vote. Why in the city of Atlanta they elected a Negro over one white man to one of the most responsible of all the city positions, a member of the board of trustees for the schools. He was reelected within the past few months by white votes. And the Negroes vote there, they vote generally over the State. And this is just part of this campaign to make it appear that throughout the entire South that Negroes are denied the right to vote. It is certainly not the truth.

NIVEN: Senator, isn't there a good deal of social and economic pressure against Negroes to restrain them from voting? 

RUSSELL: I have heard that that was true in some areas. I was giving you what I know of my own knowledge in my own State. And there may be, I don't say there aren't, isolated instances where Negroes are denied the right to vote—in every State of this Union you've got wards and communities and counties where you have got so-called courthouse gangs, and they deny some white people as well as some Negroes the right to vote if they don't belong to that gang.

But we have got criminal statutes to punish that, and why doesn't the Attorney General invoke them before coming in here and making a blanket indictment of the South, "The white man in the South is so venomous against the Negro that he won't do justice." For that is not true.

The relations between the races in the South have been gravely disturbed in the last 2 or 3 years; but until that time there had never been any place in all the history of human civilization where two races so equal in number had started out with the disparity that there was between them—one coming out of slavery—and had made the progress over the period of 80 years that has been made in the South.

The white South should be commended for what they have done. They have taxed themselves even in the desolation of destruction following the Civil War to create schools. And for a hundred years, under the protection of the law, they have paid taxes and bonded themselves to build separate but equal schools for the white and colored people.

And that's the purpose of this bill, to forcibly commingle the white and Negro children of the South in the schools. This voting business is all a smokescreen for that vicious provision of the bill—and not only in the schools, but in all our places of public entertainment.

NIVEN: Well, Senator, you and other southern Democratic Senators are now emphasizing the segregation—this integration threat in the bill.

The bill was debated for about a week in the House and the southerners there did not place great emphasis on this, they seemed to debate the bill on its open merits.

RUSSELL: Well, I of course don't know what took place over there. They perhaps were taken in by this campaign that it was just a voting bill. I haven't read the debate in the House. I did read the bill here. I spent the better part of 3 days with about 40 law books running down this cunningly contrived bill. And I leave it up to you and your personal attorneys, right now, to take the remarks that I made in the Senate last Tuesday on this bill and take this bill and if he doesn't come up and tell you that it can be used as a force bill to bring the whole might of the United States Government to bear to integrate the schools of the South, why you'd better get you another lawyer.

It's very clear, when you run it down.

BANCROFT: Senator Russell, it seems to me you go a little further than that. You say that not only can it do that, but that that was the intention of those who sponsored the bill.

RUSSELL: Undoubtedly. This section, this part—

BANCROFT: Well then, whom do you—

RUSSELL: I don't know who drafted this bill.

BANCROFT: Accuse of doing this? Do you think Attorney General Brownell

RUSSELL: I don't know whether—

BANCROFT: Deliberately brought in a bill that goes—

RUSSELL: Mr. Brownell knew what was in this bill or not. I am confident that he didn't draft it. But I would certainly like to meet the man who did draft it because it is a masterpiece of obscuring the purpose.

BANCROFT: If this is a deliberate plot, who do you think was—

RUSSELL: I don't know who is responsible for it. But I assert unhesitatingly that this part 3 of the bill was drawn for the express purpose of obscuring a vast grant of power to destroy any system of separation of the races in the South.

And I will say that after the people of the South have known no other way of life, no other social order for a hundred years, this is a monstrous proposal to come in and to ask for any such grant of power as that over night.

This condition wasn't changed by an act of Congress, where it was debated, people had an opportunity to see what was said and discuss it themselves—it came through a decision of the Supreme Court, based on a book by the Swedish Socialist who said that our Constitution is a plot against the common people of the United States. And it came overnight—like that—with no preparation.

BANCROFT: This is the Supreme Court school segregation decision you are talking about?

RUSSELL: Yes, this bill proposes to enforce judicial law, a law that has been written by the courts rather than legislative law, a law that's been written by the Congress, that's what it does.

DOWNS: Senator, you also expressed I think last week the fear or prediction that American troops could be used.

RUSSELL: Why this bill is tied in with one of your old reconstruction statutes that was passed by Sumner and Stephens when they set out, as they said themselves, to put black heels on white necks in the South. The criminal counterpart of this civil statute was stricken down by the Supreme Court declaring that it was passed by an impassioned Congress at a time when the Southern States were being treated as conquered provinces.

And yet that is the law that it skillfully ties into without being apparent on its face. Why didn't they write out in this bill what they propose to do where we could read it, instead of saying "section 1895," and then having that section refer to section 1993, where it requires a lawyer who is a jigsaw puzzle expert to put it all together to see exactly what it does?

But you will see that the real lawyers of this Senate will not refute one iota of what I said when they have studied this bill, and I care not which side of it they're on. They may say "We don't intend to do it," but they won't say it can't be done.

"Supporters campaign at the 1952 Democratic National Convention for the presidential nomination of Richard B. Russell Jr." (source)

NIVEN: Senator, can you imagine Federal troops actually being sent into the South?

RUSSELL:  I certainly can. I certainly can. When they can make such a political pawn out of the South, as has been done now, and where they can—when men are seeking political preferment, they make all kinds of commitments, and I can very readily see that Federal troops could be sent into the South to enforce—why we have had troops and tanks at two schoolhouses in the South already, without this law.

DOWNS: That was National Guard troops.

RUSSELL: Yes, that's true. But you're just as dead if you're shot by a tank bullet from a National Guard man as if you were shot by a regular or a marine.

DOWNS: Senator Russell, in answer to my question you said that you do believe, then, that this bill is really designed to punish the South?

RUSSELL: I have no question about it. Now I don't know why they take such an admonitory attitude toward the South, as if we were a group of wild and uncivilized people. Some of them feel that they are doing a very meritorious thing. to resort to any means to force the South to conform to what the rest of the Nation thinks is the proper social order for the South.

Well, this is a great Nation of ours—

NIVEN: Senator, I want—

RUSSELL: If a man wants to move from one State to another, if the southern people want their children in integrated schools, it's mighty easy to move to a State where they have them; they are not more than 300 miles away from anywhere in the South. If any other person preferred for his child to go to school with children of his own race, why, he might move to the South. Then he'd be safe for the time being, until this bill passes and is enforced.

DOWNS: Don't you believe, sir, that the social order in the South has changed and is changing?

RUSSELL: Oh, of course, it has, and is. But it has happened through a process of evolution, and this proposes to enforce a revolution on the South and to drive men. There's a great deal of difference between leading and in driving or letting people themselves lead and drive.

We have made great progress in the South. Why, in the voting, not in my time have there been any restrictions on Negroes in general elections in the South, but we did have a law for a long time that they couldn't vote in the Democratic primaries. Now that's all been done away with, and they do vote; there's no longer a white primary. We have moved forward very rapidly when you consider the full impact of it.

It's all well and good for a man that lives in a State where it is 98 percent white and 2 percent Negro to say, "Why, where is this problem? There's nothing to it." Let him go to a State where they are nearly equal in numbers, where the races in communities are about equal in numbers, and then undertake to enforce overnight such a bill as this.

NIVEN: Senator, the colored leaders reply that, despite this evolution and this progress, large numbers of them are still denied a right which they have been guaranteed by the Constitution for 90 years.

RUSSELL: You mean the right to be in integrated schools?

NIVEN: The right to vote.

RUSSELL: Well, the Supreme Court said that for 90 years they had been denied right that they were entitled to be in integrated schools. The Constitution hadn't changed; the complexion of the Court has changed.

And I deny that statement as to voting. At least, as far as the greater portion of the South is concerned, there is there is no real limitation or restriction on the right of qualified Negroes to vote.

DOWNS: Well, the qualifications, sir—

RUSSELL: You can come to my State when they are having an election and see them; they are lined up there for blocks to go and vote, and their votes are counted just like anyone else.

NIVEN: Well, Senator, would you concede that qualification has been interpreted differently for white and colored persons?

RUSSELL: I have heard that, but I don't concede it—no; I don't concede it, generally, in my State; no. There may be areas where it has been, small communities, it is probably true.

NIVEN: Well, why don't Negroes vote in larger numbers, then?

RUSSELL: Well, they vote in—we have practically 225,000 registered in Georgia, and they vote. Perhaps in some of the elections they have a higher percentage voting than white people.

Oh, you pillory the South by giving the figures voting in a general election and saying only 45 percent of the people voted. But as a matter of fact we have had the one-party system in the South, and our people vote in the primaries. And you compare the vote in the primaries, when we really settle our election, and it's not too much behind the rest of the country. But we don't vote in the general election because everything has been settled in the primary.

But that's the figures they always give you, just 45 percent here in the general election.

NIVEN: But the percentage of Negro voting is not anywhere near as high as the percentage of whites voting: is it?

RUSSELL: No; because there are a great many more white people in my State than there are Negroes. We have about 2,300,000 white people and about 1,200,000 Negroes.

NIVEN: Isn't that a proportionate basis?

RUSSELL: Well, that may be slightly true. I concede that, because they haven't been voting long. They haven't been voting too long. We only abolished the poll tax in Georgia about 10, 11 years ago.

But where can the Attorney General come in and say, "In Georgia they violated the criminal law by denying this man, Bill Jones, the right to vote"? And he should do it and prove, "I tried to indict and I tried to convict before a jury," before you come in and indict the whole State of Georgia and say we have deprived the Negro of his right to vote illegally.

NIVEN: Sir, is it your case that until recently there were impediments in the way of the Negro voting?

RUSSELL: Of course there were in voting in the primary. I explained that a while ago. They could vote in the general election, but it didn't mean anything because the man who was nominated in the primary was going to win the general election. That may be a mistake, we may have—should have been a two-party State. I sometimes think that we would have fared much better if we had been.

BANCROFT: Senator Russell, I wonder if I could explore a moment what's apt to happen here on the floor of the Senate.

You are leading this strategy. And the motion made today, of course, is a motion to take up the bill.


BANCROFT: Which, if it prevails, would of course be followed by the discussion and the motion to pass or to act on the bill and amendments. There has been some talk that you might not filibuster or unduly prolong and defeat a vote on the motion to take up. How about that?

RUSSELL: Well, Mr. Bancroft, I intend to act as each circumstance presents itself and as this matter unfolds in such a way that I think will cause us to be able to get our maximum strength for the amendments to this bill that will see that it is a right-to-vote bill instead of a punitive bill against the South.

BANCROFT: Well, now, on that, Senator Russell, an amendment cannot be offered or acted upon—

RUSSELL: Oh, no.

BANCROFT: Until after this motion to take up the bill acted on.

RUSSELL: We are now debating this bill strictly on its merits. There is no part of this discussion that consists of reading long papers, the ordinary earmark of a filibuster.

BANCROFT: Well, I'm trying to find out if and when—

RUSSELL: I'm not prepared to say just when we'll let the bill be made the unfinished business. We want to discuss it. We have found that there are a number of Senators who have been busy with other matters and didn't really understand the full impact of this bill.

I want the situation in the Senate to jell a little where we can see just where we are going with these different amendments.

BANCROFT: Well, then, after it has jelled a little, then presumably you will allow a vote to take place on the motion to take up?

RUSSELL: Oh, I think the Senate will vote on amendments to this bill.

BANCROFT: On the motion to take up, first? And—

RUSSELL: I think the Senate will vote on amendments to this bill.

BANCROFT: Then to vote on amendments?

RUSSELL: Well, I'm not prepared to say just when, but I'm very confident that it will.

DOWNS: Senator, you indicated strongly that this is a political measure—

RUSSELL: Yes; I feel that strongly.

DOWNS: Being presented by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, and then—

RUSSELL: I feel this—

DOWNS: Also you said perhaps it would be a good thing if the South did have a two-party system.

Do you think that your opposition to the bill, Democratic opposition to the bill might strengthen the Republican Party in the South?

RUSSELL: No; not when the Republican Party is furnishing more votes for this particular bill than the Democratic Party is in the Senate. I don't think that it would. I was talking about we would have been in a better bargaining position if we had not all been tied up in what's called the Southern Democratic Group.

As it is now, the minority groups outside the South, though they are relatively small in numbers compared to the voting strength of the white South, they can go to the political leaders there and convince them that these elections depend on their action in these doubtful States.

And by having had strictly a one-party political system in the South, I think we have denied ourselves a similar bargaining power.

But the Republicans, of course, are going at it in a very poor way to improve their position by putting more votes behind this force bill than the Democratic side of the aisle, here in the Senate.

DOWNS: Well, what do you think the general outcome, say, in next year's elections will be as a result of this debate?

RUSSELL: Well, I couldn't say—my crystal ball is not that good. I can't pass on what it will do.

I don't believe that the great mass of the American people favor extreme measures—we are all in favor of civil rights, everybody is in favor of civil rights.

The question is, where do my rights end and where do yours intervene? That's the question that's involved here, wholly aside from this voting proposition and this separation of the races. And they put a tag on it and call it civil rights.

But if this bill were explained to the American people, there is no doubt in my mind that an appeal from the politicians to the people would be sustained and that the American people would vote down this bill in a referendum, because it is a very unfair piece of legislation.

NIVEN: Senator, can you project any kind of compromise on this bill that would be acceptable to you?

RUSSELL: Well, I would have to see it. I would have to see it. I am perfectly willing to entertain any ideas that any responsible leader of those that are pressing this bill might care to discuss. I do resent this whole theory of the bill that the South needs a guardian in the person of the Attorney General.

Now if there is any one State where the Negro is denied the right to vote, you have got clauses in the Constitution guaranteeing a republican form of government. Apply that without coming in here and abolishing the right of jury trial and tying it into the force bills of reconstruction so you will have the power to bring the Armed Forces of the United States to bear on the southern people.

We—the country as a whole doesn't realize what we have gone through with in this whole period. We have been a very poor people. It was from 1940, 80 years after 1880, until the tax values of my State got back to where they were, prior to the great fratricidal war.

And we have taxed ourselves, taxed our poverty heavier proportionately than any other section of the country to try to carry on this separate but equal system of education. And you can get your statistics and you will see that the tax according to wealth has been heavier in the Southern States than anywhere else for education.

We don't like to be threatened with this kind of force legislation.

NIVEN: You may recall that a national poll a couple of years ago found that 55 percent of Southern whites expected that integration in public schools would eventually take place. Would you agree with that?

RUSSELL: I didn't see it, but I am not in a position to challenge your statement because I don't know. I didn't understand your question.

NIVEN: Apart from your preferences in the matter, do you feel that school integration is inevitable in the long run?

RUSSELL: Well, forever is a long time. In the foreseeable future I don't see any integration of the schools in my State, particularly with this force legislation, because you can badger and arrest and bait people until they get in a frame of mind to close down the schools before they will do it.

BANCROFT: Senator Russell, you said that amendments, in your opinion, amendments to this bill would be voted on, and I—


BANCROFT: Presume you think some would be accepted?

RUSSELL: Well, I would certainly devoutly hope so. If it is not amended it will be the worst piece of legislation ever considered.

BANCROFT: Now I presume one would be the jury trial amendment, for example, the one that was defeated in the House?

RUSSELL: Yes, and the one to strike part 3 of this bill, the force provision. It is not related to the right to vote.

BANCROFT: In other words, Senator,that would leave in it simply the provision for a civil-rights commission and a new division in the Department of Justice?

RUSSELL: Yes. Of course, that's a rather unusual provision.

BANCROFT: Would you accept that much of the bill?

RUSSELL: No; I wouldn't be prepared to vote for a bill that was such a reflection on the people of Georgia as I deem this one.

BANCROFT: In other words, no matter how many amendments are adopted you still won't vote for this bill?

RUSSELL: Oh, I didn't say that, now. You just narrowed it down. You just narrowed it down to—in the first place, this bill is wrong in policy. Here you have got a proposal that you are going to establish an entirely new division in the Department of Justice to take up all these cases, whether a man wants it done or not, and do it at Government expense.

Now the National Colored People Association and their kindred organizations have had no difficulty at all in getting up money to bring all these lawsuits.

You are starting a new system there, and the next thing you are going to do is to have some system where labor will be able to have a division in the Department of Justice to enforce their rights on employers at the expense of the Government, or vice versa, and in other fields. I don't approve of that.

I could not support such a measure. I think it is wrong in policy where a man is able to hire a lawyer, to say because it is a certain kind of case that the Attorney General can proceed at the taxpayers' expense whether the man involved wants him to or not. I don't approve of that general philosophy.

BANCROFT: Well, I'm afraid that's all the time we have, and Senator Russell, we want to thank you very, very much for being with us on Capitol Cloakroom, and we will watch with interest to see what happens down there on the floor of the Senate.

Thank you, sir.