Like most public men of his age and region, Russell was an unapologetic white supremacist. During his first run for the legislature, in 1920, he solicited the “the support and influence of every white voter and, if elected, I pledge to serve you acceptably”—a position that made sense, as Georgia’s Democratic primaries were white only. When the Atlanta Independent, a black newspaper, endorsed his candidacy for governor in 1930, Russell disavowed the support, claiming that his opponent had paid the paper’s editor to imply spuriously that the candidate supported civil rights.
Yet Russell hailed from a particular Southern tradition. His variety of white supremacy was patrician and genteel. He abhorred populists like Eugene Talmadge, his successor as governor and opponent for nomination to a full Senate term in 1936. Where Talmadge invoked ugly racial rhetoric from the stump, Russell eschewed wild gesticulation and angry racial rants. He affirmed that America was “a white man’s country, yes, and we are going to keep it that way.” He steadfastly opposed “political and social equality with the Negro.” But it was a matter of tone.
“When a politician runs out of arguments,” Russell told a packed rally, “when he hasn’t any more soap and knows that in the minds of the people he is convicted of pure cussedness in keeping the old people of Georgia from getting their pensions, then he comes in hollering ‘nigger,’ ‘nigger,’ nigger.’” (Remarkably, Russell’s later protégé and close friend, Lyndon Johnson, would deliver an almost identical speech in New Orleans in 1964. But where LBJ opposed the politics and substance of race baiting, Russell’s concern was purely cosmetic.)