In Memoriam Bill Russell

When Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947, he faced an unrelenting wave of hatred. It was hell in his first year. Also in 1947, Jackie Robinson was refused service at a Philadelphia hotel. Robinson was subject to constant humiliation and death threats, including from the city refusing to let him sleep in the same room as his teammates. It wasn’t the Land of Dixie – Mobile or Atlanta. Instead, it was Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

Robinson was taunted by the manager of Phillies. Robinson was encouraged to follow his lead. Robinson said, “Go back the cotton fields.” In later years, Robinson said: “[F]or one wild and rage-crazed minute, I thought, ‘To hell with Mr. Rickey’s noble experiment.” Northeastern racism was in full flower in 1947. It was still flowering 10 years later.

The last team to integrate was the Boston Red Sox in 1957. Robinson had just retired the year before they did it. Bill Russell was fresh off captaining the US basketball team to an Olympic gold medal in 1956. He was drafted 2nd overall by the Celtics and completed his first year of playing for Boston in 1957. He was able to experience New England racism for the first time. While he was a follower of other NBA players, Bill Russell was his true star and revolutionized the way the game was played. However, this didn’t end racism.

During his years playing for Boston, and dominating the game for most of the 60s, Russell was still treated like the butler in the city he played for. He was an instrument for Boston politicians and Boston fans. If he had not been able to win one after the other, it is clear that Bill Russell would have fallen for corruption and racism in a racist city.

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In his 1979 memoir, Russell called the city of Boston a “flea market of racism.”

[Boston] had all the varieties, old and new and in their most virulent form.” The city had corrupt city hall-crony racists, brick-throwing, send ’em back to Africa racists and in the university areas phony radical-chic racists… other than that, I liked the city.”

While Russell was receiving an award at a country bar, the vandals broke into Russell’s home in Boston. Boston was the home of soft-Jim Crow. One friend claimed that Russell considered Boston to be the most racist place he had ever lived.

Bill Russell protested open racism and Jim Crow. He also marched against the “soft” racism. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his speech “I Have a Dream”, Russell was standing close to him.

Russell was close to Robinson not only because of their shared dream of a colorblind society but also because they worked both inside and outside the system in order to make it happen. Russell and Robinson, both intelligent, likable, men, had a passion for racism and were rightly angry about it. Both men carried their dignity with honor. Robinson and Russell were not made fun of by racists, but they themselves. Among Russell’s many honors and 11 NBA titles is the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When Jackie Robinson passed away, Russell was the only person to be there for his funeral. He was also not a Dodgers teammate. If only in spirit, I believe Jackie will attend Russell’s Funeral.

Rest In Peace, Mr. Russell

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