“Felton X” (Bill Russell)


Bill Russell

Bill Russell at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

Although it is seldom discussed today, many famous athletes and entertainers took stands for the Movement. Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted to fight against the Viet Cong and lost his title and millions of dollars he could have earned. Actress Eartha Kitt, an African-American singer best known for playing Catwoman on the Batman 1960s television series, was blacklisted by Hollywood for speaking out against the Vietnam War. As is documented in the excellent film Scandalize My Name: Stories from the Blacklist, many African Americans, including Paul Robeson, Ossie Davis, and Hazel Scott, were targeted during the McCarthy era.

William (Bill) Felton Russell, a basketball star for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, was nicknamed “Felton X” because he wouldn’t denounce the Nation of Islam. Most athletes and entertainers are afraid to damage their careers by speaking out against injustice, but still a brave few continue today. Actor Danny Glover criticized the U.S. government’s response to September 11, stating, “Bombing Afghanistan and creating the idea that the U.S. is the judge, the jury, and the executioner is the wrong way to respond. It’s hard because of the anger, the pain, and the humiliation we feel about September 11. But we have to understand that other people have faced the same kind of pain, the same kind of anger. Their lives have been transformed by acts of terrorism and violence, often supported or perpetrated by the U.S.” Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore criticized President Bush for the war with Iraq on the 2002 telecast of the Oscars. And Toni Smith, a college basketball player at Manhattanville College in Westchester, New York, has repeatedly turned her back during the playing of the national anthem at the start of every 2003 game as a protest against the war in Iraq.

By Josh Ozersky

The bare facts of his career say it all: He was the star of a college team that had 56 wins and one loss in two years, winning consecutive NCAA championships. He went off to the Olympics, where he was the star of a gold-medal team that won its games by an average of 30 points. He moved directly from that to the NBA, where he turned a good team into one that was a world champion. He might have qualifed for the Hall of Fame had he retired then, but he played for 13 more years, and won the championship in 11 of them. He was the frst African-American star in professional basketball, the frst African-American coach in any major sport, and he is perhaps the single greatest winner in the history of sports.

But his greatness transcended basketball. Unlike other sports stars, Bill Russell was never loved by fans. During his tenure as a Celtic, Bostonians preferred a losing hockey team the Bruins to the most dominant basketball squad in history up to that time. In 1958, when he was the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, sportswriters did not name him to the NBA all-star team. Russell himself kept his distance, refusing to sign autographs, making the then unpopular move of calling himself “black,” and speaking his mind about the Civil Rights Movement when it was still a subject of debate on editorial pages. Read the article (PDF).

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