Eleven-time NBA champion Bill Russell has earned his Black Lives Matter spurs — and then some. In a scathing commentary on The Players Tribune blog, the former Boston Celtics center and five-time league Most Valuable player scorched America as a Jim Crow-style racist nation terrorized by police and said President Donald Trump is no different than Lester Maddox, the former racist governor of Georgia.
Russell, who played for Boston from 1956 to 1969, grew up amid Jim Crow-era lynchings in the deep south and was among the earliest African Americans to play in the NBA. He was also the first black coach in the NBA.
Racial injustice is rampant throughout every sector of American society, from education to health care to sports, says Russell, now 86.:
“In 2020, Black and Brown people are still fighting for justice, racists still hold the highest offices in the land, and kids today still grow up with cultural norms that aren’t different enough from the ones that Lester Maddox grew up with.”
Russell may have been napping during the Obama administration, unless he feels Obama is racist as well. Russell (appearing above in a Library of Congress video) grew up in Louisiana, where his father and grandfather were shot at by klansmen. This may seem like ancient history, with no bearing on today, he says, but “Black kids today don’t grow up worried the Klan will kill them in the middle of the night — they worry the police will.”
America needs a “national reckoning” to deal with cultural norms and power structures and must end voter suppression so that everyone can vote, Russell demands. When his playing career ended in 1969, minorities were fighting against social injustices that are still pervasive today, he claims. They are especially visible in politics.
Russell says he once interviewed Maddox on a TV show about why he got out of the restaurant business after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. Maddox had been refusing to serve blacks because it supposedly threatened his freedom, and he also swung axe handles at protesters. Russell once refused to play in an exhibition game because restaurants would not serve him and his black teammates.
Maddox had nothing against black people, as long as they were subservient to white people and stayed in their neighborhood, Russell wrote in his blog. Russell says this sentiment is alive and compares President Donald Trump to Maddox. “Despite being separated by 53 years, the only substantial difference between the two men’s statements is their accents.”
The United States is a country of contradictions, claiming to be the land of the free, Russell says, “but it was founded on indigenous genocide and built on slavery. As a result of this discordant origin, America is a country at odds with its past.”
Slavery, Jim Crow and racism are not historical footnotes, not missteps long since corrected. In fact Russell says, “there is no way to move past racism. Fifty-three years won’t do it, and 153 years won’t do it. It’s like apologizing for something without knowing what you’re apologizing for — no real understanding comes of it. If America doesn’t reckon with the past, divisions will only worsen.” The past is never even really gone.
Russell cites Indian team nicknames and black history lessons taught as adjacent to American history as further signs of a racism embedded in culture. He believes freedom only applies to white people.
“America is not the land of the free when Black people have to worry about being hunted down,” Russell says. Not when Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tamir Rice and Ahmaud Arbery are killed by cops and their murderers always go free.
Russell closes his hit piece on America by saying, “Without justice for all, none of us are free.” His post doesn’t say one word about family breakup or the scourge of black-on-black crime.