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In 1964, Bill Russell, the best basketball player in the world, returned from a Civil Rights mission in Mississippi, the most dangerous state in the union for a Black person.
Mississippi was where 11 black people had been murdered in racist attacks in the year since a white assassin killed civil rights activist Medgar Evers and where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were still missing.
That’s where Russell, risking his life, conducted integrated basketball camps.
When asked if he feared for his life, he responded “I’d rather die for something than live for nothing.”
When asked if he would leave his Celtics, who had just won their 6th straight championship, to continue to participate in the civil rights movement, he said, “Yes, but only if it would make a concrete contribution. There’d be no choice. It would be the duty of any American to fight for a cause he strongly believes in.”
When asked if he worried that his reputation took a hit because he was an activist athlete, he shot back, “I’m a man. If I have to be a boy to be popular, then I don’t want it. If my popularity depends on a thing like this, I don’t give a damn.”
That was Bill Russell. A great basketball player, and an even greater humanitarian.
Born in Monroe, Louisiana in 1934, Russell’s father moved the family from the Jim Crow south to Oakland when young Bill Russell was just 9. The South wasn’t made for a man like Charles Russell who refused to capitulate to the demands of Black docility.
“Charlie Russell was not a man who was ever going to be kept back,” Russell said of his father, “and because he was a man, he broke the bonds and eventually left.”
Russell, whose mother passed away when he was only 11, was molded by a man who placed his dignity at the center of every move he made.
Charlie Russell was a proud Black man, and so too was Bill Russell.
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