The National Civil Rights Museum mourns the passing of 2011 Freedom Award honoree and sports pioneer, William Felton Russell. Following baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s example, Bill Russell believed it was his responsibility as a celebrity to use his platform to stand up for positive social change.
Bill Russell was an outspoken advocate for civil rights. He was one of the first celebrities to proudly call himself “Black,” when “Negro" was still the accepted and polite term. At least twice, he refused to play a scheduled game when his black teammates were given inferior accommodations.
Russell participated in the March on Washington but refused to take the platform in deference to the veteran organizers who worked toward that historical moment. Living by his convictions, he established an off-season sports training camp open to kids of any color in 1963.
In 1967, still playing for the Celtics, Russell became the coach and the first Black coach of a major league professional sports team. The next season he became the first Black coach to win an NBA championship. In his thirteen-year NBA playing career, his Boston Celtics won eleven championships, a winning record unmatched by any player in any sport.
In 2011 Russell was honored with the Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, a fitting tribute to the man who continued to be a trailblazer and inspiration for many on and off the court. He was a man who cut to the chase, told it like it was, and did the right thing…because it was the right thing to do. He was not only an Olympic gold medalist and champion in the world of professional basketball, but also a forever champion in the game of life.