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Originally published Saturday, February 19, 2011 at 10:00 PM

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Steve Kelley

Medgar Evers' assassination in 1963 inspired Bill Russell to offer help in Mississippi

When civil-rights leader Medgar Evers was killed in Jackson, Miss., in 1963, Boston Celtics star Bill Russell called Evers' brother to ask how he could help. Russell traveled to Mississippi to run an integrated basketball camp.

Seattle Times staff columnist

On a June evening in 1963, Medgar Evers, one of the country's leading civil rights advocates, returned home from a meeting with NAACP lawyers, climbed out of his car at his Jackson, Miss., home, and took a shot in the back from a high-powered rifle.

The bullet ricocheted into Evers' home and he staggered some 30 feet before collapsing in front of the house. An hour later he was pronounced dead, becoming the first major civil rights leader to be assassinated.

And far away from the madness of Jackson, Boston center Bill Russell, who recently had led the Celtics to their fifth straight NBA championship and had won his third-consecutive MVP award, heard the news, felt the rising bile of pain, and the anger, and knew he had to go to Jackson, knew he had to do something, anything, to keep alive Evers' fight for freedom.

"He called me up and asked me what he could do to help," recalled Charles Evers, Medgar's older brother, speaking by telephone from Jackson last week.

"Get down here," Evers told Russell, "and we'll open one of the playgrounds and we'll have the first integrated basketball camp in Mississippi."

Evers knew he was asking a lot. He was asking Russell, one of the country's most prominent African-Americans, to risk his life, to teach basketball to kids — black and white — in the racial tinder box that was Jackson.

"It was totally segregated down here then," Evers said. "We couldn't drink out of the water fountains because we were Negroes. We couldn't use the restroom facilities because we were Negroes. We couldn't even register to vote.

"But because people like Bill were willing to come here and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us, we knew we could change all of those silly laws. Standing side-by-side he helped make all of the changes that have happened. If Bill would come back down here now, he wouldn't believe it was the same Mississippi."

In 1963, Russell knew he would get death threats if he tried to conduct an integrated basketball camp. And the threats came. He knew angry, white segregationists like Byron De La Beckwith, the man who murdered Medgar Evers, would be watching him.

"There were Klansmen (members of the Ku Klux Klan) on the other side of the street," Evers said.

A group of black leaders called "The Deacons of Defense" provided security for Russell. At night, as Russell tried to sleep in an undersized bed at a local motel, Evers grabbed brief hours of sleep, sitting in a chair, pointed toward the door, a rifle resting in his lap, the last line of defense.

"Whenever somebody came down to help us, black or white, we made sure they had protection," Evers said.

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This was the South in the early 1960s. This was the world, Medgar and Charles Evers, Russell and so many other committed Americans were trying to change.

"We had a few white kids come to that camp," Evers said. "That's the kind of respect even some of the white folks had for Bill Russell. The camp was a success."

That one basketball camp was a small, necessary step toward integration. Sports built bridges that connected the races.

"My good friend B.B. King once told me there were only two things that brought whites and blacks together," Evers said. "Blues and sports."

Last year, at a Seattle Storm game, I asked Russell, who lives on Mercer Island, if he would talk about the experience in Jackson, but he declined, only saying, "It was just something I felt I had to do."

Last week, President Barack Obama awarded Russell the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The first black coach in a major sport received the medal from the country's first black president, a sign of the progress that has been made since Medgar Evers' death.

"Bill deserved the medal," Charles Evers said. "He's a man who always fought for respect for everybody."

Russell marched in rallies with Charles Evers. He participated in voter-registration drives and helped Evers with his unsuccessful run for governor.

"He came to Jackson for whatever we needed him for," said Evers, 88, who was mayor of Fayette, Miss., from 1969 through 1981. "He always told me, 'The sky's the limit. Let's go for it.' He was always available, always willing to do the work. I always loved having him around, and I always loved listening to that laugh.

"But one thing I'd like to say is that we still have a long way to go. We have to teach the black folks now that freedom's not free. Freedom has responsibilities. Freedom is doing things, positive things. It's going to school, getting an education. Tell Bill to come on back down here and help us teach some of those lessons."

Freedom's not free. Charles Evers' brother Medgar surrendered his life in the pursuit of freedom. But the year after Evers' assassination, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

"Medgar used to say that we have to keep on pushing to get respect," Charles said. "And somebody's going to get hurt. We all knew there was possibility that some of us might die. And Medgar said he was willing to pay the ultimate price if it meant all the people could be free."

In the prime of his basketball career, Bill Russell came to Mississippi, willing to risk his life and his career for his belief in human rights and human dignity.

A basketball icon walked onto the courts in Jackson to honor the memory of Medgar Evers and to continue the long march to freedom. It was just something he felt he had to do.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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