By Rann Miller | AC JosepH Media Guest Blogger
A few weeks ago, we lost a literal giant in our community; in terms of physical height and the height of his activism. I am referring to Mr. William (Bill) Felton Russell.
I remember first learning of Mr. Russell as a child. My grandfather mentioned him to me while I was running around the house with a basketball trying to be like Mike. As I grew more interest in basketball, Mr. Russell’s name came up more and more.
The first time I heard his voice, the words he said stuck with me. He said that when you refer to him, refer to him as Bill Russell, who plays basketball and not the basketball player Bill Russell. He said that because it was important for people to understand that his labor (in this case basketball) did not define his worth as a human being.
That stuck with me because it was one of my first lessons in human worth; that our labor didn’t define our worth or our humanity. It was a lesson in stark contrast to the lessons I had learned about finding your worth in your occupation and the money you made from it.
Certainly, cash ruled everything around me … life of succumbing to capitalism by any means was a reality I witnessed in the lives of many. But Mr. Russell explained things differently. When I saw him stand with Muhammad Ali, along with Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, I understood; I realized that some things were bigger than the sports I loved.
But I didn’t know the half of what Mr. Russell endured, so that young people like myself could see him live his message, so that we could also.
Mr. Russell was born in the Jim Crow South, from parents who stood against ole Jim Crow. There wasn’t a school for Black children where he lived West Monroe, Louisiana. So his grandfather raised money to build a school and hire a teacher. When he went to purchase the lumber, the white store owner refused, saying all Black children needed to know was how to pick cotton.
Mr. Russell’s grandfather retrieved his shotgun and the store owner changed his mind, selling him the lumber.
His family was part of the Black migration from Louisiana to California. After NCAA championships and an Olympic gold medal, he would play in the city of Boston, where winning didn’t prevent racial slurs from being heralded his way, his house being vandalized, nor racist defecating on his bed.
Nevertheless, Mr. Russell stood tall — figuratively and literally. He stood up for the humanity of Black people and he stood up against giants like Wilt Chamberlain on the basketball court. In both cases, he came out on top.
Mr. Russell once wrote:
“Playing basketball during Jim Crow meant there were many times when bigots wouldn’t serve us. In 1961, before we played an exhibition game in Lexington, KY, some of my teammates and I were refused service because of the proprietor’s bigotry. We walked out and boycotted the game. But such injustices took a toll. I’ll never forget having to drive through the day and night to get some place, ignoring the cries of my still young children, because there was no place to stop to eat or rest, no hotel or restaurant that would accept our Blackness. None of my medals or championships could shield my children from White Supremacy. All I could do was try to instill in them the love and pride my parents instilled in me and hope it would be enough.”
Bill Russell is a legend for his accomplishments on the basketball court. But he is revered as a man for his contributions to humanity through his strength and his activism on behalf of Black people. Since his transition, tributes have poured in from around the sports world and the world at large in honor of Bill Russell the man.
My question is, however, how can you honor Mr. Russell for his activism in a nation where teachers are allowed, if not legally instructed, to withhold the truth of systemic racism and white supremacy; things Bill Russell experienced and fought against?
There will be those who’ll juxtapose Mr. Russell with NBA athletes of today, calling Russell selfless and an embodiment of a player who understood the debt he owed to humanity, whereas current players only care for themselves. Most of those people saying those things are white pundits and journalists. Some Black pundits and journalists will say the same thing.
But I challenge these individuals to stop putting the onus on individuals rather than the systems and structures that enable Black youth for seeing themselves according to what their labor can produce on a basketball court, and challenge the very people who have the ability to do something about that — starting with enabling teachers to teach the truth to young people in schools.
There is no need to preach the goodness of Bill Russell if you will not speak of the circumstances that shaped Mr. Russell as a child and that informed his activism as an adult.
It is also up to us, Black people, whom Mr. Russell means something entirely different from what he means to the social structure, to teach Mr. Russell and his activism to our children. We must teach that with great physical gifts comes a responsibility to stand up for the oppressed among us — many of whom are our people.
We can’t wait on Congress and state politicians to get their act together. We can’t wait until the next election cycle to hope that politicians will do right by us. We must take the initiative to teach of our heroes to our children now. I believe more than teaching about what he did on the court, Mr. Russell would have wanted us to teach of his activism and experiences; his love for Black people and dedication to an activism that facilitated humanity living in community.
This is how we honor his memory. We honor it by teaching our young, fighting for them in the schools they occupy, and turning our rage into fuel to win the day …
Just as Mr. Russell did.
Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.
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