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King of the Court
Bill Russell and the Basketball Revolution
By Aram Goudsouzian
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS Copyright © 2010 Aram Goudsouzian
All rights reserved.
Every man draws a line inside himself, according to Charlie Russell. A black man in the Jim Crow South needed that line. From childhood he absorbed cruel lessons about the potency of white power, the futility of black ambition, the hovering menace of violence, the intricate codes of racial behavior. A man survived by acquiescing to the system. But a man's soul survived by defending his dignity. When pushed too far, a man pushed back.
Charlie's father Jake once drew his line while sharecropping in the northeastern Louisiana delta. After one harvest, Jake told his landlord that he would not farm the next year. "Nigger," said the boss, "don't tell me what you ain't gonna do. I'll make you do it." That proclamation captured the essence of Jim Crow: the white man claimed dominion over not only the black man's labor but also his spirit. According to racial etiquette, the black worker backed down. Jake knew this code. To survive, he deferred to whites and limited his own aspirations. But this time, he pushed back. "Sir," he answered, "you and who else?" That defiance enraged the white man. After a scuffle, Jake scared the landlord off his own property. Jake then packed his children into his truck, deposited them at a friend's home, and returned home for the inevitable reprisal. When the Ku Klux Klan arrived, he delivered a volley of shotgun shells, scattering the whites away, intimidating his intimidators.
Charlie drew his own line while working construction. His white boss had just slapped, berated, and humiliated a black mule-team driver. Charlie started laughing. He proclaimed that in the same circumstance, he would run or fight, but never just suffer a beating. Like his father, he challenged one white man and an entire system of white power. The boss needed to save face. He promised to next whip Charlie. "Naaaw, Mr. George," drawled Charlie. "I don't think so." Their faces neared, their stares locked. Finally, the white man huffed away. Passing down the story, Charlie explained that he could lose a fight or get fired. He could not, however, let his boss assume absolute control. "What good would it do to let him beat me bloody to make me make my own living?" He repeated that last part, bellowing with confident fury: "to make me make my own living!"
William Felton Russell grew up hearing these stories, delighting in the embellishments, the back-and-forth clarifications, the laughter, and the pride. He learned their lessons. He spent a lifetime drawing these same lines, articulating his own manhood. His journey transcended the South. It coursed along the path of black migration, pushing him north and west, into schools and onto basketball courts that opened new possibilities. But it began on February 12, 1934, in West Monroe, Louisiana. Russell's childhood textured his future principles. In the interstices of racial limitations, he learned the values that framed his later ideology. He also built a powerful sense of self-pride—sharpened by these lessons about manhood, and bathed in the memories of a mother's love.
* * *
In the 1930s West Monroe straddled Louisiana's past and future. The rich delta soil of the outlying regions nourished cotton fields, grim poverty, and racial tyranny. Just across the Ouachita River lay Monroe, the trade center of northeastern Louisiana. Since the 1916 discovery there of natural gas, Monroe had attracted thousands of migrants to work its petroleum refineries, lumber mills, and service jobs. Tax revenues funded paved roads, streetlights, and schools. Downtown Monroe had its heyday during Bill Russell's childhood; department stores and hotels lined the blocks from Fourth Street to South Grand. By the standards of northern Louisiana, anyway, Monroe was a beacon of progress.
Less congested than its sister city, West Monroe had a small black population, including the Russells, who lived in a four-block quarter called Trenton. West Monroe had relatively peaceful race relations, yet the surrounding farm and mill regions bore threats of overt racial hatred. In the preceding decades, Ouachita Parish had suffered a quantity of lynchings comparable to any county in the South. Such attacks ebbed by the 1930s, although in 1938, in nearby Ruston, a mob lynched a nineteen-year-old black man accused of murdering a white man and beating his girlfriend. The throng attacked its victim, hanged him from an oak tree, and pumped bullets into his corpse for ten minutes. The sheriff drove away upon hearing the shots. Before the body came down, thousands visited the scene, foraging for such souvenirs as a shotgun shell or a bloody oak leaf.
Blacks in Monroe evaded the rope and torch, but they possessed little power. Color bars restricted them from skilled jobs as electricians, machinists, or printers. Poll taxes and intimidation prevented them from voting. In 1936, a candidate for city office promised to hire exclusively white labor for skilled work. Only the local NAACP president Charles H. Myers agitated with uncompromising resolve. Despite struggling for members and funds, he forged the state's most active branch, challenging police brutality, discrimination by railroad unions, and unjust imprisonment of black citizens. But most of Monroe's black elite of doctors, funeral directors, and restaurateurs acquiesced to segregation. Russell later criticized this leadership class. "They did what the white community wanted," he said in 1963. He lamented the constant pleas for blacks to stay patient, to stay in their place.
Education opened one path to marketable skills, critical-thinking abilities, and slipping the fetters of Jim Crow. But after World War One, local whites burned down the original black schoolhouse in West Monroe. Charlie Russell went to school in a church, funded by parents who paid a teacher one dollar a week. During the Depression, Governor Huey Long discoursed about educating Louisiana blacks, but parish school boards hoarded state funds for white schools. Bill attended school in a ramshackle barn propped up by poles.
The Russell family nevertheless implanted values of self-improvement, upward mobility, and independence. Neither middle-class hoity-toities nor dirt-shack poor—just "average-type people," according to one cousin—they earned the esteem of Monroe's black community. The Old Man, as Bill called his grandfather, was something of a community patriarch. Choosing jobs that preserved his independence, he worked as a farmhand, drayman, and trader. Mister Charlie, as Bill called his father, worked at the Brown Paper Mill Company. This large, imposing, gregarious man commanded respect. He built Bill's sense of dignity. He said that it was fine to dig ditches, so long as you became the best ditchdigger in Louisiana. Bill had role models in his father, grandfather, and also his brother Chuck, who was two years older.
But no one shaped Bill's early life more than his mother, Katie Russell. "When I think about my mother for any reason," he recalled, "what first jumps to mind are memories of her telling me that she loved me more than anyone in the world." She doted on him, washed him in affection. She also told him that some people would always hate him for his black skin. Her integrity complemented her warmth—once, when Charlie got too drunk and rowdy, she bashed him with an iron pipe. Bill felt safe around her. Katie Russell embodied the resistance of black women in the Jim Crow South: women who endured the double prejudice of race and gender, who worked and raised children, who envisioned a better life for their families. Katie insisted that Mister Charlie open college funds when the boys were still babies. Charlie and Katie also resisted the custom of large families, so they could properly feed and educate their two sons.
Bill's world further encompassed the extended kin networks that marked black life in the South. His Grandpa King drifted in and out of Monroe. This quirky, perhaps insane man prone to supernatural visions fathered five daughters besides Katie, including Kammie, the family's secret lesbian transvestite. Charlie's brother Bob had an enduring effect on Bill. Convinced that a tall left-handed pitcher would attract the attention of the Negro Leagues, he insisted that his nephew develop his left hand. As the story went, if Bill fell asleep holding a turkey drumstick in his right hand, Uncle Bob switched it into his left hand. Bill never knew if he was a natural lefty. His baseball career stalled out, but in the decades to come, he blocked countless shots with that left hand.
In family gatherings, after dinner, Bill heard countless folk tales about slavery, about ghosts and spirits called "haints," about the heroic resistance of The Old Man and Mister Charlie, about the foibles of white folks, about the lynching in Ruston. Sundays belonged to God, to two versions of Sunday school and two church services, to thudding lectures with fire-and-brimstone bluster. In August, his extended family gathered for weeklong revivals. "About the only thing that was fun for us kids was the huge amount of food," recalled a cousin. "We just ate and ate the whole week."
Kids like Bill had time, however, for playing in the fields and fishing. Bill was a happy child, prone to making jokes and mischief. Once, as a superstitious, ghost-obsessed neighbor couple walked home at night, Bill and his brother surprised them. The boys dressed in sheets and made spooky sounds. To their delight, the neighbors panicked and sprinted away—the wife jiggling with fat, the husband speed-hobbling on a wooden leg.
Too young to internalize all the racial patterns of behavior, Bill nonetheless shaped an understanding of American society. He had no white friends or acquaintances. In Monroe, he heard taunts and slurs from white children. One time, he and Chuck lobbed pebbles at each other—until one struck a passing car, driven by a white man. The outraged adult chased them along the back roads. He called Bill a "nigger" and threatened to hang him. "I ran off, half angry, half laughing," Bill recalled. "Much later in life, I can laugh more." He understood how black people accommodated white power, but bitterness infiltrated his recollections.
Two emblematic instances illustrated the agony of the South. One Saturday afternoon, Bill found his mother at home sobbing. She had gone into downtown Monroe dressed in a new suit modeled after a riding habit, with a trim coat and pants. A policeman chided her for dressing like a white woman, and he ordered her home. The sight of his crying mother shook Bill. He, too, broke into sobs.
Not long after, in the spring of 1942, Charlie and his two sons waited at a gas station while the white attendant gabbed with a friend. When a white customer arrived, the attendant pumped the man's gas and then resumed his conversation. Bursting with frustration, Charlie started his car. The attendant, brandishing a rifle, raged at the insult: "Boy, don't you ever do what you just started to do!" He sputtered a stream of cuss-laden invective, emasculating Charlie in front of his children—until Charlie emerged from the car carrying a tire iron. Caught between shock and fear, the attendant ran away.
Pushed out by Jim Crow, pulled away by the promise of jobs and better schools, the Russells soon participated in the Great Migration. The massive demographic shift of black people from the rural South to the urban North had begun during World War One. Bill remembered visitors home to Louisiana, sporting new cars and tales of urban freedoms. At the time, however, more than three-fourths of blacks still lived in the South. The onset of World War Two spurred new demands for labor in the industrial North and West. In the next thirty years, five million black people left the South. In 1942, Charlie rode alone to Detroit, where he made war equipment at the Ford Motor Plant. He despised the Michigan weather, however, and caught a life-threatening cold. So he moved west to Oakland, California, and worked at the Moore Dry Dock shipyards before sending for his family.
In 1943 Katie, Chuck, and Bill boarded a train themselves. Confined to the rear, they carried wrapped-up fried chicken for the ride through Little Rock, since the dining cars refused service to blacks. When they reached St. Louis they moved forward. Once out of the South, they could sit wherever they wanted.
* * *
The Russells settled in West Oakland, along with tens of thousands of other migrants. "It was like a parade," said one resident, remembering the scene at the Southern Pacific's Sixteenth Street station. "You just couldn't believe that many people would come in, and some didn't even have any luggage, they would come with boxes, with three or four children with no place to stay." During the war years, Oakland's African American population tripled.
They came for jobs. The Southern Pacific railroad yards and the Oakland Inner Harbor needed longshoremen, Pullman porters, cooks, freight loaders, redcaps, waiters, and truck drivers. Working-class families packed into blocks dense with turn-of-the-century cottages and bungalows. The West Oakland flatlands also featured small factories and commercial districts of restaurants, bars, laundries, groceries, and barbershops catering to the black influx. The Great Migration had created vibrant urban spaces that illustrated the range of African American life, mixing professionals with the poor, respectable women's clubs with randy gentlemen's clubs, hot jazz with heavenly gospel, Saturday night sin with Sunday morning salvation.
But the surge of southern migrants—both black and white—brought Jim Crow to the East Bay. "The Negro newcomer," complained a 1944 editorial in the Oakland Observer, "does not concede that the white man has the right to be alone with his kind." A recent confrontation between black workers and white policemen stirred anxieties about the "what might be called socially-liberated or uninhibited Negroes ... butting into white civilization instead of keeping in the perfectly ordered and convenient Negro civilization of Oakland." The editorial warned that more violence loomed.
West Oakland whites fled a previously comfortable, middle-class neighborhood. Shipyards, loading docks, and factories restricted blacks from skilled or administrative work. Many unions and local employers excluded blacks. Downtown hotels and restaurants brandished signs proclaiming "We Refuse Service to Negroes." Discrimination by residents and real estate agents prevented blacks from spreading beyond West and North Oakland, so blacks packed into overcrowded homes and apartments, even as rents remained high. The Russells first lived in an eight-room house shared by eight families, with another family in the garage. Pigs, sheep, and chickens roamed the backyard.
Charlie Russell insisted that they were broke, not poor. That little axiom rejected the fatalistic mind-set inflicted by poverty, and it reflected Charlie's resolve to provide for his family. Both he and Katie worked in the shipyards, one during days and the other nights. The Oakland City Housing Authority had put him on a waiting list. Every day for four months, Charlie stopped at the city office to ask about his application status. Thanks to Charlie's perseverance, the Russells moved into a project near the intersection of Tenth and Union Streets, despite the wartime housing crunch. The public housing implied a rising status—the project was racially integrated, though whites and blacks occupied separate sections.
Katie Russell remained the anchor in Bill's life. Once, a neighborhood boy slapped Bill across the mouth, harassing the new kid on the block. Katie rushed outside, grabbed her son, and chased down the bully. She made Bill fight him. Bill then challenged another boy who had insulted him during the first fight. Katie insisted that Bill learn self-respect. She further required that he think for himself. He now attended Cole Elementary School, a real school with real desks in a real building. Each class had its own teacher, and the curriculum pushed students beyond rote learning. Bill absorbed his mother's passion for education. Katie asked about his lessons, answered his questions, and took him to the library. "Every morning I felt I was going out to slay a big dragon for her," he remembered, "and I'd come home from school to tell her how it hadn't stood a chance, just like we'd figured."
Excerpted from King of the Court by Aram Goudsouzian. Copyright © 2010 Aram Goudsouzian. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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