2022 Bostonian of the year
‘To me, he was always just Daddy’: Karen Kenyatta Russell on her father’s lessons
It was easy to listen to him, because he practiced what he preached. He never forgot how even the simplest gestures can have the most indelible impacts.
Everyone who really knew Bill Russell addressed him as William. Of course, to me, he was always just Daddy.
But his full name, William Felton Russell, really had gravitas. And my grandmother didn’t choose it just because it sounded nice. Felton G. Clark was the president of Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a couple hundred miles from where my father was born in West Monroe. Clark was one of the first Blacks to hold such a post, and education was so important to my grandmother. She died when my father was 9, but would have been immensely proud when he later enrolled at the University of San Francisco.
My two brothers and I could always see how this focus remained central to our family. Our father used to explain the importance of academic grades by comparing them with NBA championships. He won 11 with the Celtics, so it wasn’t exactly a fair standard to the rest of us, but it resonated nonetheless.
He used to say to me, “You know, Karen, people can be really nasty to me, and have been nasty to me my whole life. But when I win, it shuts them up. Don’t listen to the cheers, because that way you don’t have to listen to the boos.”
Whenever my father introduced me later in life, he’d beam as he called me his daughter, the Harvard lawyer. Seeing what it meant to him meant so much to me, too.
And in his eyes, education was meaningless if not used to help others. When I graduated, he asked me to mentor three Black people. He picked that number because he said two might not succeed, and that it was OK for Blacks to fail, too.
It was easy to listen to him, because he practiced what he preached. Not many people know that my dad was actually cut from one of his high school basketball teams, and that the coach then paid for him to go to the Boys Club to work on his game. He never forgot that, and it showed him how even the simplest gestures can have the most indelible impacts.
My dad became a founding board member of MENTOR, an organization that has since provided mentorships to millions of children. It remained a focus throughout his life and he was proud to be impactful in his later years.
In 2017, he took a knee wearing his Presidential Medal of Freedom as a show of solidarity with NFL players doing so during the national anthem to protest social injustice. I used to tell people that my father is too old to be on his knees, so make Black lives matter.
In 2020, he wrote an article for the Globe on racism in America after George Floyd died in police custody. And last year, he did a public service announcement to raise awareness about the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine.
I still remember when my dad called me while protesters were rallying against the Affordable Care Act. I could tell he was upset. He just said, “I can’t believe people would march against health care for their fellow citizens.” He was all about fairness, especially when he saw inequities, and that’s a lesson that will endure.
Karen Kenyatta Russell is a graduate of Harvard Law School, a civil rights advocate, and a public speaker. This interview has been edited and condensed.