Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Champion: A Tribute to Bill Russell

Today’s blog was written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Supervisory Archivist in Augmented Processing at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

“Commitment separates those who live their dreams from those who live their lives regretting the opportunities they have squandered.” ~ Bill Russell

President Obama getting a hug from Bill Russell. (NAID 222096181)

On July 31, 2022, Civil Rights Activist and National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Famer William Felton Russell passed away at the age of 88, in Mercer Island, Washington. He was considered to be one of the best defensive basketball players in the league’s history. During his professional career, Russell led the Boston Celtics to eleven championships, won five Most Valuable Player (MVP) awards, was selected to twelve NBA All-Star teams, and was named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year” in 1968. After his basketball career, Russell became the first Black coach in the NBA, leading the Celtics to back-to-back championships in 1968 and 1969.  Additionally, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011, was honored with a statue of himself in Boston in 2013, and was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. And in a rare honor, the NBA permanently retired his number 6 jersey across the entire league on August 11, 2022.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wait in the Green Room of the White House with Sylvia Mendez and Bill Russell as recipients of the 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom are introduced in the East Room, Feb. 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (NAID 176545514)

Bill Russell was born on February 12, 1934, in Monroe, Louisiana to Charles and Katie Russell. Much like most African Americans during this era, the Russells experienced racism on a daily basis. The family relocated to Oakland, California for a better life when new opportunities were made available during World War II. Bill Russell attended Herbert Hoover Junior High School and McClymonds High School. He was a natural athlete, but lacked the fundamentals of playing basketball. Fortunately, one of his coaches noticed his talent and helped to enhance his skills. Russell’s style of defensive playing earned him a scholarship to the University of San Francisco, where he helped lead the team to two National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Championships in 1955 and 1956. Russell also won a gold medal as a member of the United States’ Olympic Men’s Basketball Team and was a first-round draft pick by the St. Louis Hawks, but was traded to the Celtics in 1956.

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. [Former National Basketball Association player, Bill Russell.] (NAID 542073)

Bill Russell’s contributions were not just in basketball. Spending his early years in the South and enduring racial insults and mistreatment in Boston, Russell was very aware of racial inequality in America. He was active in both the Civil Rights and the Black Power Movements of the 1960s. He attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Justice, helped established an integrated basketball camp in Mississippi after the assassination of Medgar Evers, and travelled to Cleveland in 1967 to support Muhammad Ali when he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War. Russell continued his activism into the 21st century by speaking out against racism and racial injustices. He even posted a picture on Twitter in 2017 of himself kneeling with his gold medal.

The National Archives holds several photographs and textual documents related to Bill Russell’s basketball career and activism. The series Presidential Photographs (NAID 81145631) of the Barack Obama Administration contains images of Bill Russell receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. He was awarded this honor for his life-long fight for racial equality. Information about Russell’s college basketball career can be found in RG 306 Features Packets with Recurring Subjects (NAID 1105040) and documentation on his activism can be found in RG 65 Classification 157 (Civil Unrest) Case Files (NAID 1513558).

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