Bill Russell's passing has led to many remembering and honoring how the NBA legend lived his life. A giant in every sense of the word, Russell's legacy on the court has been spoken about at length and in great detail. However, arguably the greatest achievements of his life were off the court. Russell was a huge advocate for civil rights and fought for equality in every way he could, even during his playing days.
The United States Of America was a very different country during the 1960s than it is today. Outright racism was rampant, especially in certain states, with civil rights leaders and civilian people of color having to fear for their lives. One of the watershed moments in the movement was when US Army veteran and civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi.
Mass protests followed Evers' assassination in his own home, and several prominent members of the black community went to Mississippi to support his family. Bill Russell recounted the scary situation at the time in his book, 'Go Up For Glory'.
"I didn't want to go to Mississippi. I was like anyone else. I was afraid to get killed. My wife asked me not to go. Some friends said the same thing. A man must do what he thinks is right. I called Eastern Airlines and ordered my ticket."
"Men like Medgar Evers were dead and other men had taken up his flag. Charlie Evers was a man marked for death, who slept with a pistol in his hand. The first night in Jackson I had no pistol, but I stayed with a friend with the door bolted. It would be rattled once in a while. There were noises in the alley. My friend couldn't sleep. 'They're coming for us, they're after us,' he said. The kind of men who come after you in the darkness do not frighten me. I went to sleep."
"Cars followed us down the road. Full of drunken red necks. Later, they would shoot a soldier, a lady, a kid. They would shoot the unarmed ones. They would lose their taste for it when they came abreast of our car. They would see guns and they would pull back and fall away, the headlights fading into the background. A coward will never fight a man who is equal. The sadness is that in the darkness of Jackson it had to be men who were equal only with guns."
"I was having dinner in Jackson with two priests. Four red necks came in. Paunchy, sick, loudmouth men who were drinking. They showed their guns as they took the table next to us. They began talking about the priests. I am not overly religious, but they were good men. I said: 'I know how you are at praying, but can you fight?' I laughed. They laughed back. The red necks kept on our backs.
"I stood up and went over to their table. My knees were shaking. Was it anger? Was it fear? I stood beside the big one. 'Baby,' I said, 'I am a peaceful man. But to me life is a jungle. When people threaten me or mine, then I go back to the law of the jungle. Now I tell you--which law are we living by here? Because if this is the jungle then I am going to start killing.' They jumped up and left. The priests and I went back to our supper. Was it hatred? Was it bitter anger? Who am I? Why should I go through this?"
It is truly depressing to remember the cruelty of a time barely more than a century old. That Bill Russell stood for what was right and stood up to horrible men like this shows exactly the sort of hero he was. The basketball world will surely miss Russell now that he is no longer with us, but the rest of the country and the world will also be poorer for it.
Bill Russell's inspirational work, along with many other people's, has allowed the athletes of today to stand for what is right. The NBA's legacy of standing in support of those that are marginalized is a proud one that Russell helped build. In his absence, it will be upon the rest of us to carry on his great work.