While a student at the University of Mississippi, Lee Russell was a leader in the movement to abolish Greek fraternities. When he later became a member of the Mississippi Legislature from Lafayette County, he introduced a bill in 1912 to prohibit secret and exclusive societies at the public institutions of higher learning. Russell’s anti-fraternity law was enacted and remained in effect for fourteen years.
After graduating from the University of Mississippi in 1901, Russell, who was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi, on November 16, 1875, enrolled in the university’s law school and completed the course in 1903. While practicing law in Oxford, Russell began a political career that would lead to the state’s highest office.
He represented Lafayette County in the state House of Representatives from 1908 to 1910, and was elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1911. In 1915, Russell was elected lieutenant governor. Following his term as lieutenant governor, Russell was elected governor of the state in 1919.
During Russell’s administration, Mississippi suffered four consecutive years of agricultural depression and crop failures that were due primarily to a sustained drought and the infestation of the boll weevil into cotton crops. Those conditions created extreme hardships for the state’s farmers and led to a rise in farm tenancy and rural poverty. Thus, Governor Russell called for financial retrenchment within state government. He recommended, among other initiatives, a state department of labor, a reforestration policy, and the adoption of a state budgetary system.
In February 1922, Frances Birkhead, the governor’s former secretary, filed a $100,000 seduction and breach of promise suit against Governor Russell. The suit was tried in federal district court in Oxford. Governor Russell claimed that the suit had been concocted by the fire insurance industry to “blacken my career.” Governor Russell had filed an antitrust suit a year earlier against several fire insurance companies because of their business practices. The federal jury acquitted Governor Russell after twenty-five minutes of deliberation.
After leaving office in January 1924, Governor Russell moved to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and became a real estate agent. He later returned to Jackson and practiced law until his death on May 16, 1943.
David Sansing, Ph.D., is history professor emeritus, University of Mississippi.
Kirwan, Albert. The Revolt of the Rednecks, 297-299.
McLemore, Richard Aubrey. A History of Mississippi, Vol. II.
Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1920), 35.
Lee M. Russell Subject file, Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Sansing, David G. The University of Mississippi, A Sesquicentennial History (Jackson, 1999), 177-78, 200-211.
The Clarion-Ledger, May 19, 1943.