Statement on the legacy of NBA legend and activist Bill Russell

Press Release
August 1, 2022

Statement on the legacy of NBA legend and activist Bill Russell

The world has lost one of its great champions today. Bill Russell was a uniquely transformative athlete but an even more remarkable person. He was a hall of fame defender on the basketball court and of personal dignity. He was a champion at every level and a champion of racial equity. He was the first Black coach in American professional sports and the first activist-athlete. Bill was, by all rights, a baller and a trailblazer.

Even as the centerpiece of the Celtics dynasty in the 1950s and 60s, Bill was not immune to the bigotry and racism that plagued Black people in this country. He empathized with his Black brothers and sisters who did not have the privilege of being a superstar athlete – a privilege that still did not protect him from the injustice of being denied a hotel room or a table at a restaurant in some cities.

The towering center loomed large in this country’s fight for racial equality. He marched on Washington with Dr. King in 1963. In the wake of Medgar Evers’s murder that same year, he risked his own life to visit Mississippi and host an integrated basketball camp. He stood alongside Muhammad Ali in opposition to the Vietnam War.

And as Bill watched this generation’s athletes, like Colin Kaepernick, demonstrate the Underground Railroad’s principle of courage in pursuit of equity, he himself kneeled. Bill inspired today’s generation of activist-athletes to cooperate using their status, influence and platforms to advocate for social justice for all.

Bill lived his life as he played the game of basketball: with class, without fear and in pursuit of excellence. He lives in our memory as a champion, not only of basketball, but of equity.

Woodrow Keown, Jr.

President & COO
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center


About the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened in August 2004 on the banks of the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. Since then, more than 1.3 million people have visited its permanent and changing exhibits and public programs, inspiring everyone to take courageous steps for freedom. Two million people have utilized educational resources online at, working to connect the lessons of the Underground Railroad to inform and inspire today’s global and local fight for freedom. Partnerships include Historians Against Slavery, Polaris Project, Free the Slaves, US Department of State and International Justice Mission. In 2014, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center launched a new online resource in the fight against modern slavery,

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