Civil rights

Bill Russell, Jackie Robinson and Civil Rights

Bill Russell
Former Boston Celtic Bill Russell waves to cheering fans in the first quarter as the Boston Celtics take on the Detroit Pistons on February 15, 2012 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts |

The world recently lost a giant when Bill Russell, the all-star center who led the Boston Celtics to 11 NBA championships during his playing career from 1956 to 1969, died. Only Wilt Chamberlain has had more career rebounds than Russell, who revolutionized the center position with his phenomenal ability to block shots. The 6’10” basketball star was also the first black head coach in every major American sports league. But Russell was also a giant off the court. Following in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson, Russell helped chart a path that many other professional athletes followed. Russell told a reporter that “if not for Jackie, he might not have become a professional basketball player.”

For more than six decades, Russell has been involved in the fight for civil rights, using his platform as a celebrity athlete to work to end racism. Along with baseball players Bill White, Curt Flood and Bob Gibson, Russell led a group of black athletes who, in the 1960s, risked their reputations and livelihoods to fight against segregation and discrimination.

Russell, like Robinson, joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. That year, Russell also strongly supported protests to end segregation in public schools. of Boston and spoke with black students participating in a sit-in. After the assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers also in 1963, Russell offered help to Evers’ older brother Charles, who lived in Jackson, Mississippi. In response to Evers’ suggestion, Russell ran an integrated basketball camp in the Deep South despite the danger to his life.

Although blacks began playing in the NBA in 1950, few were playing by the mid-1950s. Russell was the only black player on either team in the NBA Championship Series his rookie season . Like Robinson, he endured racist taunts while performing. Like the baseball pioneer, he was also at times discriminated against when it came to lodging and food. When a hotel restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, where the Celtics had come to play an exhibition game in 1961, refused to serve black Celtics players, Russell led them on a strike.

Like Robinson, Russell also faced housing discrimination. In the mid-1950s, racism kept the Robinsons from buying a home in Westchester, New York, and hampered their attempt to purchase property in North Stamford, Connecticut. After the Robinsons built a house in an all-white area of ​​North Stamford in 1955, many white people complained. The man who sold the property to the Robinsons was ostracized, and several neighborhood families sold their homes. After vandals spray-painted racial epithets on the wall of his home in Reading, Massachusetts, Russell tried to move his family to another house nearby, but residents of the predominantly white neighborhood engineered a petition to stop them.

Many consider Robinson’s main contribution to civil rights to be his breaking with the long-standing color barrier in Major League Baseball. But Robinson arguably overcame more hurdles after his retirement from baseball than he did as a player. In remembering her husband, Rachel Robinson highlights his role “as an informal civil rights leader. This is the game [of his legacy] people forget. Jackie, she adds, used her athletic success “like a political forum” to promote the causes close to her heart. Robinson called himself a “civil rights pressure group”.

Motivated by his Christian faith, Robinson became a major civil rights advocate and activist during the last 16 years of his life. His biographer Michael Long argues that Robinson was “an extraordinary political powerhouse and civil rights leader … who personified the ‘first-class citizenship’ he demanded for all Americans”. As political scientist Peter Dreier argues, Robinson was a pioneer of social and political activism; he was one of a handful of professional athletes who went beyond philanthropy and social service to challenge social institutions and practices through word and deed. “The breadth, depth and variety of Robinson’s activism,” asserts Dreier, are “so remarkable that it would be almost impossible to replicate them.”

Robinson served as National Campaign Chair for the NAACP’s Freedom Fund, worked with the National Conference of Christians and Jews, helped lead several civil rights marches, wrote articles on racial issues for the New York Post and the New York Amsterdam News, gave dozens of speeches and sermons, and worked energetically to provide better schools, housing, and jobs for African Americans. In interviews on numerous national television and radio talk shows and in hundreds of newspaper columns, Robinson analyzed various civil rights issues and challenged the opinions of black and white politicians and activists, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Roy Wilkins, Malcolm X, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and William Buckley.

The baseball star has written dozens of letters to presidents criticizing and applauding their civil rights policies. He traveled to many Southern hotspots, spoke in Birmingham, Alabama, and marched in Selma, Alabama. Robinson participated in protest events in the nation’s capital and New York City and convinced other prominent black athletes to join him at civil rights events.

As we celebrate the lives of Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, whose museum opened last week in New York, let us remember not only their impressive sporting achievements, but also their major contributions to the civil rights movement. Putting themselves in personal danger (both men received numerous death threats), they courageously confronted animosity, hostility and racism to improve opportunities for black Americans. Inspired by their heroic actions, countless other black athletes have fought to end discrimination in sports and other areas of American society.


Originally posted on The Faith and Freedom Institute.

Dr. Gary Scott Smith is Professor Emeritus of History at Grove City College and Fellow in Faith and Politics at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of the next Strength for Battle: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson.