When we were in college, Daniel Russell and I sat in theology classes together. One time we were assigned a presentation and decided to outline it over chicken teriyaki bowls. I arrived and got in line with a friend, receiving a text from Daniel saying he was running late. Eventually, when Daniel got there, my friend stepped out of line to give him her spot so that we could be able to get our food together.
An older man, standing in line behind us, leaned over Daniel and said, loud enough for the line to hear, “I saw what you did there.”
Daniel looked up, confused. My friend tried to step in. “Sir, I was saving—.”
She was cut off.
“No, no. I saw him cut the line.”
The man couldn’t be demurred, nor could he be settled. Daniel, red in the face, apologized, got his food, and left the building with me. We didn’t talk much about the presentation; instead, we sat at a table—him across from me—and talked about justice. About lines for chicken teriyaki bowls and what to do when people misinterpret your intentions.
Daniel is a man concerned with justice, and his family is a family concerned with justice, too.
His great-grandfather, Richard B. Russell Sr., was the chief justice of the supreme court for the state of Georgia from 1922-1938. The New Georgia Encyclopedia writes that, upon his death, “his fellow supreme court justices said that ‘considering what was done by him directly, together with the forces he influenced, few, if any, other men have left or will ever leave such an imprint on the life of this state.’”
Originally elected to office at the age of twenty-one, Russell Sr. spent much of his career advocating for education, sitting on the boards of colleges while maintaining his role as the chief justice.
One or two summers before Daniel and I sat eating chicken and talking about injustices, he was hired by a Christian summer camp focused on outdoor leadership. This was the type of job Daniel was made for; with blond, curly hair and a wiry body, Daniel lived in a perpetual readiness to climb the nearest mountain.
As he was preparing to go, however, he received word that, due to low funding, the camp was not going to be able to hire him after all. They simply didn’t get the donors needed, so they had to let go of a number of summer staff.
Daniel emailed them back with a simple question: could he volunteer?
Daniel doesn’t know that I know this story—he didn’t tell me. The story simply floats ahead of him as a precursor to his goodness.
Thirteen of Richard Russell Sr.’s children survived to adulthood, and none were as famous as his first born, Richard B. Russell Jr., who served in the United States Senate from 1933-1971.
Throughout Russell Jr.’s career in the senate, he fought to get electricity to the rural south and was a promoter of President Roosevelt’s New Deal as well as Medicare. He also penned the Richard B. Russell School Lunch Act, signed into law in 1945, which provided free lunches to children in low-income areas. To many, he was a “senator’s senator” because of his extensive knowledge of the rules and procedures in the Senate.
After his retirement, one of three senate office buildings was named after him, including a statue in his honor in the rotunda. He is known, even in memorandum, as one of America’s best senators.
Daniel and I sit across from each other at a fancy coffee shop in Pasadena, California. A married man now, his ring glints in the lighting as an art installment hangs just behind his head. Other than the ring and more facial hair, he looks like he did in college. As he talks, I watch him lean forward and speak, measuring each word on his tongue to make sure it rings true.
Daniel speaks down the line of impressive Russell ancestors, and as he does so, I am struck with how similar his story is to mine. I wonder if his family was the first to step off the boats and into the New World. If so, I’m sure mine followed shortly after.
My mother makes bold claims we are related to Francis Scott Key on her mother’s side, but Ancestry has yet to show any proof. What I have discovered on Ancestry is a family tree stretching back to crossing the Atlantic from England in the 1600s. Eventually they migrated to Oklahoma, and I have the written account of my great-great-great grandfather staking land in Oklahoma territory in the great Land Run. He helped begin the first church and opened one of the first drug stores in the new state.
My great-great-great grandfather on my dad’s side was a traveling preacher, a justice of the peace, and a shoe cobbler. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page like Richard Russell, but, as my grandfather says, he was “good people.”
We both come from All-American families.
Richard Russell Sr., the chief justice of the supreme court of Georgia, has a glowing biography in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. It includes everything I mentioned above.
What it doesn’t mention, what we hardly mention, is the role of race in Russell Sr.’s life and career. A white, southern man, he was set up to succeed, and his affiliation and friendship with the Ku Klux Klan only furthered his progress in the Jim Crow South. David Mark Chalmers writes in Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan that, “The Klan was also close with the elder Richard B. Russell, the much respected Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia, and Klan leaders conferred with…Russell on state policy.”
The account of my great-great-great grandfather’s claim of Oklahoma territory barely mentions the Native Americans already living on the land.
I come from them, too.
My mom’s side is Choctaw, and they made their way to Indian Territory during the Trail of Tears.
Somehow I got both ends of the deal, the positive and the negative.
Last August, after the death of Senator John McCain, there was a push to rename Richard Russell Jr.’s building after Senator McCain. In the middle of the debate, Daniel shared his opinion on Facebook.
As uncle [sic] Dick’s legacy is raised in the news cycle, dear friends, know the Biblical truth of the sins of the fathers really do carry on to the fourth generation... Sin is systemic as much as it is personal, and my great [sic] Uncle demonstrated that with his own legacy.
Uncle Dick was blatantly wrong for opposing the Civil Rights Act, and America must atone and confess its sins, and maybe this is one way to do that?
Senator Richard Russell spent his career fighting Civil Rights legislation, voting down anti-lynching bills as well as the Civil Rights Act.
From a national level, conversations are being had about Confederate monuments and flags, and renaming Senator Russell’s building sits among them. But what happens when it’s personal? What happens when it’s your history?
I thought my story was rather simple:
The white man came and took land he shouldn’t.
The Choctaws were the victims, losing land and a way of life.
But as I researched my history, I discovered my Choctaw ancestors owned slaves and fought for the confederacy in the Civil War. They were deeply indebted to the free labor of black bodies and fought to keep that right.
My great-great-great grandfather, however, seemed to be an amazing man. He worked hard and came from a line of undertakers and farmers in northern New York—without any semblance of slave ownership.
How do I—how do we—reconcile our histories?
After graduating from Azusa Pacific University with a degree in theology, Daniel studied to become a hospital chaplain at Fuller Seminary and became deeply invested in justice work. He purposefully stepped away from homogeneity and into diverse friendship and the difficult work of coming to terms with his past.
His journey began a few years before mine did, so my desire to interview Daniel for a profile piece was a selfish one: perhaps even without realizing it, I was hoping to find answers.
Finally, I asked him what advice he would give. He paused for a while, long enough for me to think about interjecting, and thought about his answer. Finally, he said,
“Step into the shoes of people of color. Step into the shoes of Native Americans who are still here. Step into the shoes of the black community; the black man, the black woman, the transgender black female. Step into the shoes of Latinx. Step into the shoes of Asian American. Step into the shoes of the Middle Easterner. Don’t expect people of color to come and talk to you about their experience. Google, email, research anything and everything you need because it’s not on them, it’s on you to educate yourself on this stuff.”
This was the process he went through, and it was out of his lived experience he was able to say it.
As we sat in that coffee shop, with the art installment hanging behind his head, we grappled with our history and what we were suppose to do about it. I was taken aback by how beautiful it was. I was convicted that perhaps these moments were moments of justice, of reckoning.
Perhaps these were moments of healing.