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As a racial justice activist, NBA great Bill Russell was a legend off the court

President Barack Obama awards Bill Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. The president recognized Russell not just for his legendary basketball career, but for his work as an activist on and off the court.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
President Barack Obama awards Bill Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. The president recognized Russell not just for his legendary basketball career, but for his work as an activist on and off the court.

Bill Russell, who has died at the age of 88, was more than just a basketball superstar and world-class athlete. As a dedicated human rights activist, Russell fought against racial inequality both 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 of the championships were playing for the Boston Celtics.

However, the president was more impressed by Russell's life outside of his athletic accomplishments: marching with Martin Luther King Jr.; standing up for Muhammad Ali; and boycotting a game in Kentucky after his Black teammates were refused service in a coffee shop.

"He endured insults and vandalism, but he kept on focusing on making the teammates who he loved better players, and made possible the success of so many who would follow," Obama said in 2011. "And I hope that one day, in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man."

The first game boycott over civil rights

In October 1961, the Boston Celtics were in Lexington, Ky., for a pre-season exhibition game. Before the game, Sam Jones and Tom Sanders, two Black members of the Boston team, were refused service when they tried to grab a bite to eat from the hotel's café.

According to Mark C. Bodanza's biography of Sam Jones, Ten Times a Champion, Jones and Sanders walked away humiliated and angry. The two bumped into Russell and K.C. Jones on the way back to their hotel rooms and explained what had happened in the café.

The four men brought the news to Celtics Coach Red Auerbach, who rang the hotel management about the incident. Though the players were eventually given permission to eat at the hotel, they wanted nothing to do with the establishment and chose to fly home.

It was the first boycotting of a game over a civil rights protest, according to the Basketball Network. When the players landed back in Boston, they were welcomed by a predominantly white crowd that supported their decision.

Russell told reporters the following day, per Bodanza: "We've got to show our disapproval of this kind of treatment or else the status quo will prevail. We have the same rights and privileges as anyone else and deserve to be treated accordingly. I hope we never have to go through this abuse again. But if it happens, we won't hesitate to take the same action again."

Almost 60 years later, Russell referenced the incident as he applauded another NBA team for speaking out. In August 2020, players on the Milwaukee Bucks chose not to take the court in a playoff game against Orlando after police shot a Black man in Wisconsin.

"In [1961] I walked out if an exhibition game much like the [NBA] players did yesterday," Russell wrote. "I am one of the few people that knows what it felt like to make such an important decision."

Many of Russell's most notable actions were during the 1960s

Russell was at the 1963 March on Washington, sitting nearby 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 Black student boycott of Boston's public schools to protest segregation that same year. He was involved in local issues in Boston, including being involved in planning the graduation and speaking to graduates at a predominantly Black high school in 1966.

After Medgar Evers was murdered 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 America's war in Vietnam, Russell joined other prominent Black figures gathering in Cleveland to meet with Ali. Russell supported Ali's decision to go to prison instead of denouncing his beliefs surrounding civil rights and religious freedom.

Later in life, he continued speaking out.

In 2017, he posted a photo of himself – wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom – taking a knee in a sign of solidarity with protesters within the NFL.

"Proud to take a knee, and to stand tall against social injustice," Russell wrote.

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Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.