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Bill Russell was more than a basketball superstar and a world-class athlete. As a dedicated human rights activist, Russell fought against racial inequality in and out of professional sports.
In February 2011, Barack Obama presented Russell with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the East Room of the White House. He told those in attendance about Russell’s record 11 NBA titles, more than any player in history. All championships were playing for the Boston Celtics.
However, the president was more impressed with Russell’s life outside of his athletic accomplishments: walking with Martin Luther King Jr.; defend Muhammad Ali; and boycotting a game in Kentucky after his black teammates were denied service at a coffee shop.
“He endured insults and vandalism, but he continued to focus on making teammates he loved better players, and made success possible for so many who would follow,” Obama said in 2011. And I hope that one day, on the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only for Bill Russell the player, but for Bill Russell the man.”
The First Civil Rights Boycott Game
In October 1961, the Boston Celtics were in Lexington, Ky., for a preseason exhibition game. Before the game, Sam Jones and Tom Sanders, two black members of the Boston team, were refused service as they tried to grab a bite to eat at the hotel cafe.
According to Mark C. Bodanza’s biography of Sam Jones, ten times champion, Jones and Sanders left humiliated and angry. The two bumped into Russell and KC Jones on the way back to their hotel rooms and explained what happened in the cafe.
The four broke the news to Celtics coach Red Auerbach, who called hotel management about the incident. Although the players were eventually allowed to eat at the hotel, they wanted nothing to do with the establishment and opted to return home.
It was the first boycott of a game over a civil rights protest, according to the Basketball Network. When the players landed in Boston, they were greeted by a mostly white crowd that supported their decision.
Russell told reporters the next day, according to Bodanza: “We need to show our disapproval of this type of treatment or the status quo will prevail. We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated.” as a result. I hope we never have to endure this abuse again. But if it does, we will not hesitate to do it again.
Nearly 60 years later, Russell referenced the incident while applauding another NBA team for speaking out. In August 2020, Milwaukee Bucks players chose not to enter the field in a playoff game against Orlando after police fatally shot a black man in Wisconsin.
In 61 I came out if an exhibition game much like the @nba players did yesterday. I’m one of the few people who knows what it’s like to make such an important decision. I am so proud of these young people. This reminded me of this Pls RT@MSNBC @CNN pic.twitter.com/70VAIFxhtf
— TheBillRussell (@RealBillRussell) August 27, 2020
“In  I came out though an exhibition game much like the [NBA] players did it yesterday,” Russell wrote. “I’m one of the few people who knows what it feels like to make such an important decision.”
Many of Russell’s most notable actions took place in the 1960s
Russell was at the 1963 March on Washington, seated next to King as he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Another notable action came when Russell spoke to students in support of a one-day boycott by black students of Boston public schools to protest segregation that same year. He was involved in local issues in Boston, including helping with graduation planning and speaking to graduates of a predominantly black high school in 1966.
After Medgar Evers was assassinated in 1963, Russell traveled to Mississippi to work with Evers’ brother to open an integrated basketball camp.
In 1967, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the American war in Vietnam, Russell joined other prominent black figures gathered in Cleveland to meet Ali. Russell supported Ali’s decision to go to jail instead of speaking out about his beliefs about civil rights and religious freedom.
Later in life he continued to speak.
In 2017, he posted a photo of himself — wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom — taking a knee in solidarity with protesters within the NFL.
“Proud to get on our knees and stand up against social injustice,” Russell wrote.