Joe Randazzo: We must honor the values Russell, Nichols and King stood for

This commentary is by Joe Randazzo, a resident of South Burlington.

We lost two important pioneers during the weekend: Bill Russell, age 88, and Nichelle Nichols, age 89.

Russell was one of the greatest basketball players to ever play the game, the first black coach, and Nichols was a trailblazing, interracial pioneer. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. profoundly affected the lives of both of them. 

Nichols was going to quit “Star Trek” for a role on Broadway, but King persuaded her to stay. At an NAACP banquet, he told her, “You cannot, you cannot … for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance, and can go to space, who are professors, lawyers." The next day, she told Gene Roddenberry she would stay.

Bill Russell was present, in the front row, during King's “I have a dream” speech in Washington in 1963. Russell was a fierce anti-racist, greatly inspired by King. He was raised in segregated West Monroe, Louisiana. He witnessed his father being threatened with a shotgun because he wanted to buy gasoline, and seeing his mother told by the police to go home and remove her “fancy white-woman's clothing.” His grandfather, Jake Russell, had to stand up to the KKK in order to build a school for black children. 

Even as an NBA All-Star, Bill was not allowed to stay with his teammates in a North Carolina hotel. In 1961, the team refused to play an exhibition game in Kentucky because they were refused service at a local restaurant. This caused quite a national stir.

I graduated high school in 1961 and married in 1968, tumultuous and formative years. Many of us find it hard to believe that the first interracial kiss on television, between Nichelle Nichols and William Shatner, occurred in 1968. Why did that happen so late? Were we that primitive? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

We all leave a legacy for good or ill. Very few of us will impact other people’s lives to the extent that King, Nichols, or Russell have done. 

But all it takes is for us to help or mentor one family, be truthful and forceful in protecting those who need our help and understanding, and our lives will count for something. We are only one person, but we can be an immense one.

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