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What's in a Name: Changing the Culture of Washington, Slowly

Updated on February 21, 2019

changing the culture of Washington



There can be little debate that our national government in Washington D.C. is broken and has been for a long time. Fixing it will be a lengthy and arduous process, but in 2018 there were some positive developments. The American people elected to the House of Representatives the most diverse group in our history, the most women, people of color, Muslims, Native Americans, and members of the LBGT community. These fresh faces have brought enthusiasm and new ideas, which whether you agree with their policy proposals or not, has at least created energy and debate, something very beneficial in a democracy. On a recent trip to D.C. to visit my daughter, Erin, who is interning with New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, she told me about and I noticed several things which reflect a Washington which should no longer exist and by extension an America that hopefully has moved on, but maybe has not completely.

Race is an issue that the country is still struggling with, the most recent example being the Governor and Attorney General of Virginia admitting they had donned black face in the past, as part of a yearbook photo, dance contest, party, or whatever. As you walk on Constitution Ave. near the Capitol Building, you may notice that the main Senate Office Building is named after Richard Russell. It might be a fair guess that many of the Senators whose offices are in the building do not know who Russell was or if they do, do not give it much thought. Richard Russell was a Senator from Georgia who served close to 40 years in Congress, and is mainly remembered for being an arch-segregationist, who spent his long tenure attempting to block civil rights for African-Americans. Do we really want one of the major buildings of our government named after someone whose career highlight was to oppose the central idea our nation and society are based on, that we are all created equal, deserve equal rights and treatment. Mr. Russell may have been an honorable and decent man in all other aspects of his life but on the fundamental debate which dominated his time in the Senate, he chose the wrong side of history. Such stances are not worthy of the honor of your name on the Senate Office Building, and in a small way continue the outdated racist culture that dominated Washington for so long.

On the other side of the Capitol, along Independence Ave, sits the main office building of members of the House of Representatives, bearing the name of another Southerner, Texan Sam Rayburn. He served in the House for nearly 50 years, and holds the distinction of being the longest serving Speaker of the House at 17 years. Rayburn’s case is perhaps not as clear cut as that of Richard Russell. Mister Sam as he was affectionately called by his colleagues helped FDR pass his New Deal legislation in the 1930’s and guide the nation through World War II. Like Russell, however, Rayburn helped block any civil rights legislation for the first 46 years of his Congressional career. Different than the Georgian, Mr. Sam had a change of heart right at the end of his storied tenure, by supporting the Civil Rights Bill of 1957. That legislation, pushed forward by then Senate Majority Leader, Lyndon Johnson, to break some of the shackles of his Southern heritage, was very weak, but stood out as the first civil rights measure passed in about 100 years. Maybe Rayburn could be forgiven for his years of obstruction on the freedoms of African-Americans, and be sighted for his end of career change in position.

While in D.C., I did not get to go inside the Capitol, but my daughter informed me that among the many statues are ones of Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, the President of the Confederacy and Vice-President respectively. Both men did serve in Congress before joining the Confederacy, Davis in the Senate, Stephens in the House, while Davis also served as Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce in the 1850’s. Here again, however, in the moment of the country’s greatest crisis, the two statesmen picked to defend the institution of slavery against the forces of freedom. A choice not worth a statue in our legislative house, a place not only where the business of the nation is conducted, but one that Americans and people from around the world visit to celebrate the values of the United States. This same ideal of honoring those who upheld and pushed forward the best of America could also apply to the divisive issue of Confederate monuments. Robert E. Lee was an excellent military commander, but he too chose slavery over liberty when push came to shove. The goal of American society is for each generation to keep striving toward the fulfillment of we are all created equal. The monuments represent a bypassed era, and should not be destroyed but moved to private locations, not maintained in public.

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, the name on a building is not as important as the major concerns confronting America at the moment, but correcting little issues and abuses may help us address the bigger ones more successfully. We are all created equal, the fundamental belief that should guide the actions of our elected representatives, no matter the problem being confronted. Russell, Rayburn, Davis, Stephens, and Lee should not be forgotten as they are part of our history, but neither do they deserve honored spots where the finest of America is celebrated. Without going into a detailed discussion, just one more example of that ideal in practice. Virginia was also the site of a confrontation over the extent of free speech, where a young woman and several deputies were killed during a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. The question there was, does someone’s right to free speech outweigh another person’s right to live peacefully, exercising their fundamental rights without harassment? I do not think so. It most also be remembered that a public parade or rally requires the local population to pay for police security, sanitation, and other services in order to hold it. If Neo-Nazis or white nationalists want to conduct a gathering, let them do it at a private location, the public should not have to indirectly support it. It is at least something worth more discussion. A journey begins with the first step.


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