Bill Russell, who died Sunday at the age of 88, was a towering figure in American life. Standing, he went 6 feet, 10 inches. In history, he seemed to stride the continent like Paul Bunyan, like John Henry: mythical, impossible, huge.
He won basketball titles everywhere he went — high school, college, the pros, the Olympics — and won them over and over again. His coach, Red Auerbach, summed up his career of 11 NBA titles by describing him as “the single most devastating force in the history of the game.” He was among the first Black superstars in professional sports, encountered racism at a brutish level and, strikingly for the mid-century era, made no attempt to be liked by problematic fans. Woe betide anyone who might have thought of telling William Felton Russell to “shut up and dribble.”
His high-profile civil rights work included, but by no means was limited to, going to Mississippi to work for integration in the wake of the assassination of Medgar Evers and participating in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who noted that he “stood up for the rights and dignity” of all people.
Russell filmed an unforgettable conversation for the Civil Rights History Project, an oral history production by the Library and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Seattle, Washington, on May 12, 2013. It’s three hours and was conducted by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch (“Parting the Waters”). The pair combined to write Russell’s memoirs, “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”
“I always had the confidence that my mother and father loved me,” he told Branch, right off the bat. “And what they taught me is that if they loved me, I must be OK. So if other people encounter me, and have a problem with me, my father said, then that’s their little red wagon. And so I never worked to be liked because that would be hypocritical to them.”
The conversation hadn’t been going for ten minutes when he tells two quick stories about his grandfather, whom he idolized. The man never went to school but was both smart and fearless. Once, his grandfather heard the Klan torturing a black man in the woods one night near his home in Monroe, Louisiana. He loaded a shotgun with cartridges filled with birdseed and fired it into the crowd half a dozen times. The crowd couldn’t find him in the dark and left. His grandfather went home, never checking on the victim.
The second story was about a white lumber store owner who took his grandfather’s money for enough wood to build a house. But when the man learned that Russell’s grandfather intended to build a school for Black children with it, he refused to give him the lumber or refund his money. His grandfather then matter of factly said he was getting the money, the lumber, or his shotgun to kill the man. He got the lumber and built the school.
“And that’s the kind of stuff where he said, ‘Bill, be sure you don’t take nothing from nobody,” Russell told Branch.
Russell, born in 1934, and the rest of the family moved to Oakland, California, when he was eight. He graduated high school and then college at the University of San Francisco, where he led his team to two national titles. Later, his daughter graduated from Harvard Law School.
“So it’s the evolution of my family from my grandfather to my kids,” he said, summing up his grandfather’s influence, “from no school to Harvard Law School.”
The interview is like that, three hours with one of the most remarkable Americans of the 20th century. It’s not always easy to listen to — the racism he encountered in Boston in the 1960s was scarcely different than the Louisiana in the 1930s — but the thing that comes shining through is the rock-solid voice of Bill Russell, American icon.
How much did he and his family value education — not so much sports?
“My most prized possession,” he famously said, “was my library card from the Oakland Public Library.”
Subscribe to the blog— it’s free!