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This Day in Georgia History

November 02, 1897

Richard B. Russell, Jr. Born

Lawyer and noted politician Richard B. Russell Jr. was born in Winder, Georgia. After graduating with a law degree from the University of Georgia in 1918, he returned to Winder to practice law. Russell’s life of public service began in 1919 when he was named Barrow County attorney. The following year, voters elected him to the Georgia House of Representatives, where he pushed public education and improved transportation - especially better roads. In 1927, at age 29, Russell was named Speaker of the House - the youngest in Georgia history. In 1930, Russell easily won election as Georgia governor on his platform of reorganizing state government for economy and efficiency. Five months shy of his 34th birthday, Russell took the oath of office from his father, Georgia chief justice Richard B. Russell Sr. He became the youngest governor in Georgia history - a record that still stands. After Georgia U.S. Senator William Harris died in 1932, Gov. Russell named an interim replacement until the next general election, in which Russell himself became a candidate. Georgia voters elected their young governor to fill Harris’ unexpired term. When he arrived in Washington in January 1933, he was the nation’s youngest senator. At first. Russell was an ardent supporter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, particularly those designed to help rural America - which included most of Georgia at the time. As the Great Depression waned, however, so did Russell’s support for Roosevelt’s policies. But Russell’s popularity at home remained strong, and his devotion to duty and intricate knowledge of how the Senate worked helped him rise to power. In his freshman term in the Senate, Russell managed to secure an appointment to the influential Appropriations Committee, remaining a member for the rest of his life. Another notable committee he served on was Naval Affairs (renamed the Armed Services Committee in 1947). Russell served as its chairman from 1951-1953 and 1955-1969. Besides standing committees, Russell also served on several high-profile special committees. He chaired the 1951 committee which investigated the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur, and helped defuse what could have become a much more volatile issue. He also served on the Warren Commission investigating the assassination of President John Kennedy. In 1952, Russell became an active candidate in the Democratic race for president of the United States. Russell won the Florida primary and appeared to have a serious chance for his party’s nomination. At the Democratic National Convention, he was supported by 23 states, but on the third ballot lost the nomination to Adali Stevenson. Unfortunately, by the 1960s, Russell’s national image was most affected by his stance on civil rights. He strongly opposed federal intervention in southern race relations and became the leader of a southern bloc of senators who held similar ideas. Russell’s opposition to civil rights laws strained his relationship with President Lyndon Johnson, who was a strong supporter of federal intervention to guarantee civil rights in the South. Still, during his long senatorial career, Russell can be remembered for the many things he did for the nation (such as defense and the school lunch program) and for his home state of Georgia (such as federal research facilities, water and transportation improvement projects, and military bases). One of his last achievements was congressional authorization for the giant C5 Galaxy military transport plane manufactured Lockheed’s facility in Marietta. Throughout his 39 years of public service in the U.S. Senate, Russell lived modestly in a small Washington apartment, where he worked tirelessly for what he believed was best for his Georgia constituency. He died in Washington, DC on January 21, 1971. In tribute to his contributions, a congressional office building, a U.S. Corps lake, scenic highway in north Georgia, and a number of buildings and facilities bear Russell’s name. Also, in 1984, the U.S. Postal Service recognized Russell in its “Great Americans” series of postage stamps. Additionally, an imposing statue of him is found on the grounds of Georgia’s state capitol. For those interested in learning more of his life, a special repository for his papers, as well as those of other notable Georgia political figures, is housed at the Richard B. Russell Memorial Library at the University of Georgia.