To Be Equal: NBA Great Bill Russell Paved the Way for Two Generations of Social Activist Athletes
“Racism cannot just be shaken out of the fabric of society because, like dust from a rug, it dissipates into the air for a bit and then settles right back where it was, growing thicker with time. Police reform is a start, but it is not enough. We need to dismantle broken systems and start over. We need to make our voices heard, through multiple organizations, using many different tactics. We need to demand that America gets a new rug.”
When current NBA players speak out against racism and social injustice, they might face criticism from right-wing media, like Laura Ingram’s infamous “shut up and dribble” tirade, but they have the backing of their union and of the league.
That wasn’t the case in the 1950s and 1960s when Bill Russell risked not only his livelihood, but his very life, to demand equal treatment and respect.
When Milwaukee Bucks players refused to leave their locker room in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2018, the NBA cancelled not only the Bucks’ playoff game against the Orlando Magic, but every game that day. The WNBA, Major League Baseball, NHL, and Major League Soccer responded with boycotts of their own.
Sixty years earlier in 1961, Black players were refused service in their hotel’s restaurant just before an exhibition game in Lexington, Kentucky. Russell, along with four of his Black teammates and two Black members of the opposing St. Louis Hawks, walked out, but the game went ahead as scheduled. One of the striking Hawks, rookie Cleo Hill, never played another season.
After the walkout, Celtics owner Walter Brown vowed “never to subject my players to that embarrassment again.”
That was the same year Russell first met a 14-year-old who idolized him: Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who kept a 1956 photo of Russell, then a University of San Francisco track and field star, competing in the high jump.
“There was something else about that photo that affected me even more than Bill’s amazing performance,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote. “If you do a search of the image, you’ll find that most versions are cropped to frame Bill flying up over the bar. Yet, if you see the complete photo, you’ll see about three dozen white people watching him, most of them frowning, glaring, or just staring. But standing beside the post is one young Black kid with a smile on his face. A kid who suddenly saw the possibilities for achievement, despite a crowd of mostly white faces who maybe saw the future of sports in America—and didn’t like what they saw.”
Abdul-Jabbar would join Russell in what became to be known as the Cleveland Summit of 1967—a meeting of the nation’s top Black athletes regarding Muhammad Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the Army. After subjecting Ali to tough questioning about his motives and beliefs, the group decided to back his decision. Russell later told Sports Illustrated,
“I envy Muhammad Ali. He faces a possible five years in jail and he has been stripped of his heavyweight championship, but I still envy him. He has something I have never been able to attain and something very few people I know possess. He has an absolute and sincere faith. I’m not worried about Muhammad Ali. He is better equipped than anyone I know to withstand the trials in store for him. What I’m worried about is the rest of us.”
Any serious debate about the greatest NBA player of all time surely would cite Russell’s record 11 championship rings and his unrivaled defensive stats. But what made Russell the GOAT, to quote Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell, “was ferocious, indomitable seriousness of purpose, wedded to elite intelligence … His presence, his competitive menace, his fearless, reckless abandon in midair and his desire to glare into the opponent’s psyche and break some crucial gear made him exhilarate and frightening to watch.”
Russell never put his love for the game above the fight for dignity and racial justice. In his final years, he was heartened by the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that swept the nation. As we mourn his passing, we share his unflagging hope that that these kinds of strange days are forever behind us, and that real, lasting change will finally be realized.” —August 5, 2022
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ChildWatch: “We Belong in History”
History is important. If you don’t know history it is as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, anybody up there in a position of power can tell you anything, and you have no way of checking up on it.
Earlier this week staff at the Children’s Defense Fund-Texas joined students, parents, teachers, and coalition members of Teach the Truth: Texans United Against Censorship in Education at a State Board of Education meeting on proposed changes to the state’s social studies curriculum. Texas is one of many states reexamining what history schools will be expected and allowed to teach, and when young people were given their turn to speak, current Texas middle school, high school, and college students shared comments like these:
“We deserve to have ourselves reflected in the courses we study.”
“It’s important to accurately teach history to prepare your future leaders to make informed decisions with proper historical context. It is just as important for students to understand the diversity of the human experience.”
“I’m here as a student to ask for a public education system with an accurate representation of the history of America.”
CDF-Texas Youth Civic Education and Engagement Intern Alisha Tuff put her thoughts this way: “It is time to strengthen African American/Black, Latino, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, Indigenous, women, and LGBTQ+ voices in the curriculum. This country was built on the backs of many of these people. It is time to honor all of our experiences. We are going to be the generation that changes things . . . We will not allow the whitewashing of our ancestors’ experiences to prevail. We have the power to influence education reform, and our collective voices will lead to the education we deserve. We are the protectors of our ancestors’ stories. We belong in history, and we will no longer allow our existence and history to be tarnished.”
I was blessed to have Howard Zinn as one of my own history professors and mentors at Spelman College. An eloquent chronicler of The People’s History of the United States, the Civil Rights Movement, and the longings of the young and the poor and the weak to be free, he understood and taught us the importance of history. He also taught us to stand up and feel empowered to act and change our own lives and the community and region in which we lived. This is a lesson these students already understand. Young people are speaking up, and their voices are yet another reminder that all children need to be taught the full truth about their own and others’ history in our increasingly multicultural nation and world; that Black, Native American, Latino, Asian American, LGBTQ, immigrant, and women’s history are all American history; and that none of our children can afford miseducation and ignorance about the rainbow of others around them. Only the truth will set us all free!
—August 5, 2022
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