While a student at the University of Mississippi, Lee Russell was a leader in the movement to abolish fraternities. Later, as a member of the state legislature from Lafayette County, he introduced a 1912 bill to prohibit secret and exclusive societies at the public institutions of higher learning. Russell’s antifraternity law was enacted and remained in effect for fourteen years. As governor, Russell also served as president of the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning, and he directed college presidents to follow the letter of the law. The antifraternity law was not very popular and was repealed after Russell left office.
Russell was born in Lafayette County, Mississippi, on 16 November 1875. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1901 and enrolled in the university’s law school, completing the course in 1903. While practicing law in Oxford, Russell began a political career, representing Lafayette County in the State House of Representatives from 1908 to 1912 and in the State Senate from 1912 to 1916. Russell was elected lieutenant governor under Theodore G. Bilbo in 1915 and won the governorship four years later.
During his administration Mississippi suffered four consecutive years of agricultural depression and crop failure, primarily as a consequence of sustained drought and the boll weevil. Those conditions created extreme hardships for the state’s farmers and a rise in farm tenancy and rural poverty, which in turn prompted a corresponding rise in racial violence. This violence was so widespread that a group of lawyers published a book, Mississippi and the Mob, that sought to persuade residents to refrain from mob action. Law enforcement officials were especially urged to arrest and prosecute individuals who participated in lynchings and other assaults on black Mississippians.
In 1921 Russell filed an antitrust suit challenging the business practices of several fire insurance companies. In February 1922 Frances Birkhead, the governor’s former secretary, filed a one-hundred-thousand-dollar seduction and breach-of-promise suit against Russell in federal district court. Russell claimed that the fire insurance industry had concocted the suit to “blacken my career” in retaliation for the antitrust action. The jury acquitted Russell after just twenty-five minutes of deliberation.
After leaving office in January 1924, Russell moved to the Gulf Coast and became a real estate agent. He later returned to Jackson, where he practiced law until his death on 16 May 1943.
- Albert D. Kirwan, The Revolt of the Rednecks: Mississippi Politics, 1876–1925 (1951)
- Mississippi Official and Statistical Register (1920)
- Lee M. Russell Subject File, Mississippi Department of Archives and History
- David G. Sansing, The University of Mississippi: A Sesquicentennial History (1999)