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Hear John McCain's final words to the public
01:20 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She is the author of multiple books about Southern history and culture, including “Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture,” which will be reissued in 2019. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

What’s in a name when it comes to our public buildings? Quite a lot.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen universities lead the charge to distance themselves from being identified with former statesmen and founders whose values clash with those of the present day. Yale University renamed Calhoun College, named for former Vice President John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina statesman who was an ardent supporter of slavery, for Grace Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and rear admiral in the Navy. At the University of North Carolina, the name of Ku Klux Klan leader William Saunders has been scrubbed from the building that bore his name.

Karen Cox

In the wake of Senator John McCain’s passing from brain cancer on August 25, Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer has proposed renaming the Russell Senate Building in honor of his deceased colleague from across the aisle, a man whose service to country began in the US Navy, continued as a member of the House of Representatives from Arizona, and finally, as his state’s Republican Senator for more than 30 years. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Tuesday he would appoint a bipartisan committee to make recommendations for how to commemorate McCain’s memory.

One might well understand an impulse toward renaming, since Richard B. Russell was as ardent a proponent of segregation as Calhoun was of slavery.

A Democrat from Georgia, Russell served in the Senate for nearly 40 years and was respected by colleagues for his mastery of Senate rules and procedures, a “senator’s senator” some called him. Yet despite his support for New Deal legislation after he entered the Senate in 1932, and his role in increasing the Defense Department budget while chairing the Armed Services Committee in the 1950s, Russell was a southern Democrat of the old school in the vein of men like Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and James O. Eastland of Mississippi.

What that meant in real terms is that Russell was bent on maintaining the region’s system of racial separation at all costs. In 1956, he co-authored the “Southern Manifesto,” condemning the Supreme Court decision to desegregate public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. He also led the southern opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Following his death in 1971, his Senate colleagues decided to rename what had been known simply as the Senate Office Building in honor of his years of service, his racist past notwithstanding.

Now that there’s a bipartisan effort afloat, led by Schumer and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, to honor McCain by changing the building’s name, some senators have indicated they don’t support the change.

Richard Shelby of Alabama has said that Russell “was a well respected man from the South…a man of his time.” Shelby is one of several Southern GOP senators who have pushed back on the name change, including Georgia Senator David Perdue, who called Russell “a giant of the Senate” and said the current members need to “take a deep breath” before they decide what to do. Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana has balked at the idea because he worries that changing the name sets a bad precedent. He told the press he would rather “find another way” to honor McCain. In other words, honoring someone’s memory should be permanent.

But should it?

In 1972, senators added Russell’s name to the building without any consideration of their African-American constituents, many of whom had been involved in a battle for their civil rights for decades. Some will argue that a name change “erases history.” This is the same argument being made against the removal of Confederate monuments in cities and towns across the South. But in neither case is this true, because history and preserving memory are not the same.

History is recorded and can be read and reread, which is why we know not only of Russell’s reputation as a master of parliamentary procedure in the Senate, but also how he used those skills like a police baton on civil rights legislation. Republican senators standing in the way of the name change are engaging in selective historical thinking when it comes to Russell, because even they know the former senator’s racial politics aren’t something to be remembered favorably.

Yet one might caution against renaming or even naming government buildings in the first place. Memorials of any kind, whether monuments, named highways, or government buildings, often reflect the values and sentiments of some members of the current generation and may not truly represent our larger republic, as was the case with Russell. Along those lines, it is conceivable that a future generation of Americans may want to remove the name McCain, because of the senator’s support for the Iraq War and his military hawkishness, which some criticize harshly as a militarized foreign policy.

For now, though, it appears that a name change is on hold as senators try to figure out the “best way” to honor McCain. And should the building be renamed, there’s no guarantee McCain’s name will remain, as future generations will decide if it was the right call.

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    Regardless, John McCain’s history as a senator is not in jeopardy.