There was a lot of talk back on Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of one of the monumental moments of American history — the March on Washington culminated in the iconic “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. That march and that speech helped lay out a vision that changed the course of the nation as one of the high water marks of the civil rights movement.
The speech was some of the most memorable and moving oratory ever given in the United States — and Bill Russell was feet away from Dr. King when he gave that speech.
“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.”
Russell was the in the middle of his legendary career — he had five championships and three MVPs at that point — and his presence helped some understand the need for equality that extended from buses to restaurant counters all the way to the basketball court.
Russell had played a role in the civil rights movement as well (something talked about also in a Seattle Times story).
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.
But he did do something, by being there and lending his sizable presence to the cause.