Justin Tinsley is a sportswriter who’s written for The Sports Fan Journal and The Smoking Section.
50 years ago this afternoon, perhaps America’s most recognizable speech and march took place in Washington, D.C. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream Speech” may or may not have been his finest oratory ever — his impassioned, yet physically taxing “mountaintop” speech given the day before his assassination hits home with the same intensity and forward thinking — however, what happened in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, became the focal point of a battle for equality still, in many ways, being fought today.
While King being in attendance is common knowledge, in close proximity was another titan of his own profession: Bill Russell, who stood just feet away from Martin. Ironically, the Celtics icon never figured the speech would be as revered as it is half a century later.
“When I heard the speech, I had no idea that the words of that speech would last as long as they did,” Russell told USA Today in 2011 as he received his Presidential Medal of Freedom. “It never occurred to me it would be quoted 50 years later.”
As a kid born 17 years after Russell’s last season in the NBA, Russell’s humility and sense of self have always hit closest to home. The books and articles I’ve read and the documentaries I’ve watched, they all paint a picture of a man cognizant of himself and the importance of forcing change in the era he lived in. Russell never did anything just to latch on to a moment. Instead, he, like so many other Americans on the front line of the civil rights battle, stood for equality, only to be combated with racial slurs and, even worse, death.
A lot can be made about Russell’s 11 championships and whether or not his era of dominance was “easier” than that of the larger-than-life stars who entered the NBA after him. Topics like that are debatable. What’s not, however, is the impact he had on civil rights. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Shuttlesworth and others were faces of the civil rights movement. But Russell’s advocacy — along with guys like Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and more — was just as imperative.
It mapped out for America that equality didn’t only result from being able to occupy the same bathroom or drink from the same water fountain. Equality was needed in places like basketball courts, too. Russell stood as one of the first celebrities to identify himself as “Black” when “negro” was still the popular term. On multiple occasions, he threatened not to play in games when fellow Black teammates were given inferior accommodations on the road.
Following Boston’s fifth consecutive NBA title and his own third-straight MVP honor, Russell found himself in a fit of rage — Medgar Evers was murdered in his own driveway while getting out of his car on the evening of June 12, 1963. Russell quickly sprung into action.
“Get down here,” Charles Evers, Medgar’s older brother, said to Boston’s superstar. “And we’ll open one of the playgrounds and we’ll have the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi.” Russell did. With the Ku Klux Klan (including Evers’ killer, Byron De La Beckwith) following his every step, and with Charles barely sleeping while holding a rifle at Russell’s motel door for protection, Russell followed through on his promise.
Two months later, with the image of Evers’ assassination and the ghosts of Mississippi still fresh on his mind, Russell attended the “March On Washington” and even declined an invitation by King himself to stand beside him after meeting him the night before. Not because of any ill will, but because he understood the pain and tears it took to produce an event of this magnitude. ”He invited me to be up here, and I respectfully declined because the organizers had worked for years to get this together, and I hadn’t done anything,” said Russell
at the March’s 50th anniversary.
Today, 50 years following a moment that forced America to open its eyes and recognize the bigotry it frequently spewed and potential it had to be more than a divided superpower, Dr. King will receive the bulk of the praise, as he should. He is perhaps the most recognizable American of the past 100 years, a man who had his faults, but gave his own life for a vision still being sought after in 2013. One of Martin’s most powerful and long-lasting quotes reads, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
The NBA and society as a whole is lucky that shoe never fit Bill Russell.