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Perspective | Magazine

Bill Russell’s hope for America: That this time will be different

I’ve been waiting my whole life for America to live up to its unfulfilled promise, Russell writes, because our lives depend on it.

In this 2012 photo, Bill Russell receives a standing ovation at a Celtics game. Russell is a civil rights activist and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.
In this 2012 photo, Bill Russell receives a standing ovation at a Celtics game. Russell is a civil rights activist and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

We are living in strange times, but I’ve seen stranger. There’s the kind of strange that means uncommon or out of the ordinary. The COVID-19 pandemic is surely representative of that. Then there’s the kind of strange that means peculiar, perverse, uncomfortable and ill at ease. Now that’s the kind of strange I’ve known my whole life. It’s the kind of strange Billie Holiday sang about when she sang, “Southern trees bear a strange fruit. Blood on the leaves and blood on the root,” referring, of course, to the then common practice of the lynching of Black people.

It’s the kind of strange that has dogged America from the beginning. The kind of strange that justified indigenous genocide in the name of “civility.” It’s the kind of strange that built a country out of the labor of that “peculiar” institution known as slavery. It’s the kind of strange that justified Jim Crow, mass incarceration, police brutality, and the inequities that persist in every facet of the Black American experience.

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It’s the kind of strange that leads to fighting each other instead of the system, that often attacks those who speak out instead of those who commit injustices. It’s the kind of strange that accepts an inept and cowardly president who caters to white supremacists. It’s the strange voice that condemns those brave enough to kneel during the American anthem until America lives up to its unfulfilled promise, but rationalizes the behavior of a racist who kneels on a Black man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until the life is choked out of him.

Let me remind you of that unfulfilled promise, the one right there in the Declaration of Independence: “All men are created equal” . . . “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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I’ve been waiting my whole life for America to live up to that promise and the fact that it hasn’t, that in America the systemic and pervasive killing of Black and brown people has never been strange in the “out of the ordinary” sense of the word, but only in the “uncomfortable and ill at ease” sense of the word, adds up to nothing less than, in the words of that Billie Holiday song again, a strange and bitter crop of injustices, with bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the tree to drop.

Yet, I am heartened by the waves of Black Lives Matter protesters risking their lives to march among our streets. I am heartened by the Minneapolis City Council’s pledge to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department in response to their protests. And I sincerely hope that these kinds of strange days are forever behind us, and that real, lasting change will finally be realized. Our lives depend on it.

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Bill Russell is a civil rights activist and he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011. He played for the Boston Celtics from 1956 to 1969, winning 11 NBA championships. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @RealBillRussell. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.