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Leonard Pitts

Back in the day, his FBI file dubbed him “an arrogant Negro.” But then, people often mistook principle for arrogance whenever African Americans insisted on justice.

Sometimes, they still do. As recently as 2017, after all, much of white America vilified NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police violence against African Americans. Donald Trump cursed him. Wayne Newton ordered him to “get the hell out” of the country.

But Bill Russell, the “arrogant Negro” in the FBI file, lowered himself to one of his then-83-year-old knees and glared into a camera.

“Proud to take a knee,” he tweeted, “and to stand tall against social injustice.”

Russell, the Boston Celtics center who died Sunday at 88, is being remembered as the greatest winner in the history of team sports. His 11 championship rings — Michael Jordan has six — his Olympic medal, his two college titles and his five MVPs certainly make the case.

With his agility, his vertical leap and his 7’4” wingspan, Russell was an unparalleled defender. But 53 years after he last played, that tweet serves as a reminder of what made him an unparalleled man. Meaning his moral courage, his willingness to stand — or in this case, kneel — and be counted.

That was a prerequisite of being Black in the 1960s, especially if you were part of that small advance guard of negritude who had established a beachhead in white American consciousness. It’s why Sam Cooke turned from party songs to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Army.

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It was why Nichelle Nichols, who also died Sunday, listened when Martin Luther King asked her not to leave her role as Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek.” He knew that ultimately, Uhura wasn’t just a character. She was a Black woman on the bridge of a starship in the same decade Fannie Lou Hamer was viciously beaten for wanting to vote. So Uhura was a promise. She was an aspiration.

These days, dozens of Black performers and athletes are lauded by the white mainstream and they have wide latitude to advocate for any cause they please, notwithstanding that time Fox “News” drone Laura Ingraham had the temerity to tell Kevin Durant and LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” Granted, that was appalling. But to speak up in the 1960s was dangerous — to livelihood and, conceivably, to life.

Russell accepted that risk repeatedly. There he was, this young Black man, playing in a mostly white league in one of the most notoriously racist cities in the country. There were death threats. There was police harassment. His home was ransacked and painted with racial slurs. Haters defecated in his bed.

Yet Russell never ceased to boldly assail and disrupt American racial hypocrisy. He supported the civil rights movement despite disagreeing with King’s pacifist approach. He ran a youth basketball camp in Jackson, Mississippi, that was pointedly open to Black and white children. He led a boycott of an exhibition game after being refused service at a coffee shop in Kentucky. He declined to attend his own induction into the NBA Hall of Fame because he thought it a racist institution. He called Boston a “flea market of racism.”

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So it was heartening, though not surprising to see him, in his ninth decade, appear on Twitter, still agitating for freedom. It suggested that, while the things that made Bill Russell an unparalleled athlete eroded with age, the thing that made him an unparalleled man was indestructible. Let that serve as his epitaph.

He was “an arrogant Negro” to the end.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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