Donald Russell: A Life of Public Service

Presented by the South Caroliniana Library

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Political Life


Gubernatorial campaign card 1962
Russell's gubernatorial
campaign card, 1962

Russell returned to Spartanburg to practice law and renewed his involvement in a number of community organizations. He served as Chairman of the Spartanburg General Hospital Board of Trustees, State Easter Seals Chairman for the Crippled Children's Society, Advanced Gifts Chairman for the United Way Community Campaign, and as a member of the boards of the Spartanburg County Foundation and Converse College. In 1959, the Russells established an endowment for a James F. Byrnes Chair of International Relations at the University of South Carolina, which was the beginning of USC’s Richard L. Walker Institute of International and Area Studies.

Blatt, Johnston, Russell
Governor Russell with
Sol Blatt (left) and
Olin D. Johnston (center).

In 1962, Russell ran for governor against Lieutenant Governor Burnet Maybank Jr. Russell won the primary and was unopposed in the general election. To celebrate his election, Russell held a barbecue which included both white and black guests. This was the first integrated political event held in South Carolina since Reconstruction. In 1992, Russell recalled the circumstances, “We had a pretty good gauge of things in South Carolina at the very date of inauguration. During the campaign, I had made the statement that we were going to have a barbecue at the Governor’s Mansion, on that big lawn, and everybody in the state was to be invited. And the question arose immediately, was there to be any bar on account of color? The answer was, there would be none. Anybody could come that wished…[L]ots of people thought there would be a very difficult time…. But we had blacks and whites there, and had no trouble whatsoever. Everything was fine. It sort of set the stage for the feeling that we were going to be a law-abiding people, and that all we had to do was to show our faith and our confidence in what they would do. We didn’t have to have any big show of force of any kind around, or anything. It was just like we knew people would act decently. They did, and that, I think, was a good omen for what was going to happen at Clemson [when it was integrated later that month].”

Russells with LBJ
Governor and Mrs. Russell
greeting President and
Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson
at the Governors' Reception,
1965 Presidential Inauguration.

As governor, Russell stressed the importance of improving the state's educational programs. He also established an open-door policy at the Governor's Mansion, inviting all citizens to come and see him at any time. These innovations led both Time and Life magazines to feature Russell as an exemplary leader of the New South.

One of the first challenges Russell faced as governor was the court-ordered integration of Clemson College. Russell received high praise when he refused the offer of federal troops from U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy. As reported in The State newspaper, he assured Kennedy "South Carolina was ‘perfectly capable’ itself of maintaining law and order‘ and we are not going to have any violence’” (25 Jan. 1963). South Carolina was distinguished among the southern states for the peaceful integration of its schools. Russell also helped expand the technical education system and worked to continue the dramatic expansion of industry in the state.

Front page from Columbia Record
Front page from the
Columbia Record, 21 April 1965.

U.S. Senator Olin Johnston died unexpectedly in April 1965. The governor was to appoint a successor to serve until such time as a special election could be held. Russell said that he felt South Carolina needed a strong and able leader in Washington to deal with the important issues and he believed that he was best qualified to step in and serve. He stepped down as governor and was appointed Senator by his former Lieutenant Governor, Robert E. McNair, who became governor upon Russell's resignation. By all accounts, Russell was an effective senator who quickly won the respect of his fellow senators. “I have seen no new member of the Senate…who has applied himself more diligently and effectively to the task of being a United States Senator than the able Junior Senator from South Carolina.” -- U.S. Senator Herman E. Talmadge, c. 1966

Senate reelection campaign
Flyer from Russell's Senate
reelection campaign.

The special election again pitted Russell against "Fritz" Hollings and again, Hollings came out the winner. Voters appeared critical of the manner of Russell's appointment. During his gubernatorial campaign, Russell had promised to serve his full term as governor and not to use the position for further political advancement. Russell served in the Senate from April 22, 1965 to November 8, 1966.

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