The renowned basketball legend Bill Russell died on July 31, 2022. Between 1956 and 1969, the legendary center played for the Boston Celtics and was a 12-time National Basketball Association All-Star and a five-time Most Valuable Player recipient. Most memorable of all, he won 11 championships with the Celtics. Outside of sports, he was also a stalwart advocate for civil rights in America. He was born in 1934, and his passion for change stemmed from his personal experiences with racism and discrimination while growing up.
Elijah “Pumpsie” Green died on July 17, 2019. He was born in 1933 and played for the Red Sox between 1959 and 1962. Although less well known than Russell, he too was an important part of Boston sports history, as he was the first African American to start for the Red Sox, who were the last team in Major League Baseball to integrate people of color onto their roster. Although his achievements in professional sports pale in comparison to those of Russell, his experiences provide important context to understanding what life was like during this era.
During his playing career for the Red Sox, Green befriended the then-rising Celtic star and future Hall of Fame legend Russell. Both were from the San Francisco Bay Area, and each shared a lot in common. During this time, Green would often have dinner at Russell’s home, and they discussed many things, including how they were subjected to racism and discrimination as they attempted to make the major leagues in their respective sports.
Russell and Green played major league sports only six decades ago. However, the times were vastly different than they are today. Not only were laws different, but the dynamics of society were different as well. Green and Russell grew up during a time when the federal government had yet to pass effective anti-discrimination laws protecting people of color. Notably, it was not until 1964 that the federal government passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, which outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. As a result, any progression of anti-discrimination law was largely delegated to states and localities prior to 1964.
In the commonwealth, legislators initially enacted several laws throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s in an attempt to protect historically marginalized people from discrimination. The first was the Public Accommodations Act in 1865. The law provided protection from discrimination in public spaces and declared that there should be no distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race in any inn, public place, public conveyance or public meeting. The following year, however, legislators significantly weakened the act by providing a “good cause” exception for any exclusion or restriction prohibiting people of color from public spaces. In 1895, the law was amended, and a person aggrieved could recover a civil remedy from the offender in an amount between $25 and $300, which was later increased to $500 in 1934. The aforementioned list of public spaces covered by the law would not be expanded until 1953, when Massachusetts legislators passed a bill that prohibited discrimination in motels, common carriers, elevators, gas stations, retail stores, establishments, personal services, restaurants, bars, beauty salons, libraries, sporting events and more. These early laws provided a win for civil rights in the legislature, but in effect did little more than merely codify law.
It was not until 1944 that laws combined with enforcement began to make a difference in the commonwealth. That year, the governor of Massachusetts appointed a committee called the Governor’s Committee for Racial and Religious Understanding in an attempt to eliminate discrimination. This committee investigated discrimination claims and was later transformed into the Fair Employment Practices Commission. Later, in 1950, the commission would be renamed to the more recognizable Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD). This commission was the first in Massachusetts to investigate claims involving race and religious discrimination in the public sphere and forbade any employer of six or more employees from discharging or refusing to hire any person because of race, color, religion, national origin or ancestry. It further prohibited inquiries into racial or religious matters in job applications and prohibited labor unions from excluding individuals from full membership on a racial or religious basis.
The commission enforced these policies by investigating claims filed by persons aggrieved. If the commission found probable cause for discrimination and could not settle the matter through conciliation, a cease-and-desist order would be issued. Finally, there was authority to eliminate racial discrimination through enforcement by the commission. Thereafter, thousands of employment discrimination cases were heard by this commission for the first time in Massachusetts history. Consequently, complaints of private discrimination that would have previously fallen on deaf ears were finally heard and addressed.
Although anti-discrimination laws were developing between the 1940s and 1960s, it would take much longer for the social climate in America to change. During this time, racism and prejudice were prevalent among social groups as historically marginalized populations fought for a foothold in American society. Both Russell and Green frequently experienced this firsthand. Although they were professional sports celebrities of their time, they by no means were immune to instances of racism and discrimination.
Green, for example, while traveling to play for the Red Sox, was pulled over by police while driving slowly in a school zone. He was shocked by the demeanor of the officers and felt he could have been shot to death for obeying the law. Another time in Texas, officers held their guns while pulling him over. In disbelief that he was a professional baseball player, they accused him of stealing baseball equipment. Even his time spent with the Red Sox was not without exclusion based on race. For example, during the entirety of spring training camp, he was not allowed to stay with his team at a luxurious Florida hotel because of his race. Instead, he was required to stay 17 miles away and commute back and forth daily. Later, when he became a starting player, the team elevated a second African American player to the regular season roster. This was not solely for competitive purposes but because Green was not allowed to stay in the same hotel room as other white players and needed a roommate while competing in other cities.
Russell suffered his own challenges as a professional athlete and was deeply miserable while playing in Boston. He would tell Green stories about how he could not find a realtor to sell him a home in wealthy neighborhoods outside of Boston. When he did find a home in Reading, Massachusetts, it was broken into but nothing was stolen. Instead, it was vandalized. His walls were covered in racist graffiti, his trophies were damaged, and someone defecated in his bed. Russell would later go on to reflect about his time spent in Boston feeling shunned and isolated, saying, “I had never been in a city more involved with finding new ways to dismiss, ignore, or look down on other people,” and going on further to say Boston was a “flea market of racism.” Although Green and Russell shared a close companionship, their perspectives on racism and discrimination varied. Green believed that racism was an unavoidable part of his life. Russell believed that if he was one of the most prominent African Americans in Boston and miserable, then life for the average person of color must have been torturous.
Undoubtedly, Green and Russell were both incredibly important figures in the history of Boston sports. The time they lived in, however, was very different. During their playing careers, racism and discrimination were prevalent in society, and federal and local laws did not do enough to protect them. Moreover, even the laws that did attempt to protect them either had limited authority or failed in their practical application. As a result, each suffered terrible experiences of racial abuse and discrimination during their lifetimes without recourse. With their recent deaths, surely there will be many publications celebrating their achievements — and rightly so. However, their lives were not only about success and accomplishment but about how they overcame adversity along the way as well.
Timothy Brown is an associate in the Boston office of Lewis Brisbois and a member of the Products Liability, Toxic Tort & Environmental Litigation, and OSHA Safety and Health practices. Brown’s prior experience includes several years representing plaintiffs in matters involving serious personal injury, medical malpractice, and nursing home negligence. During this time, Brown practiced across the commonwealth in district and superior courts. Prior to becoming an attorney, he gained valuable experience in the legal division of a busy state department assisting with civil litigation matters. He has also gained valuable experience as a law clerk with the City Solicitor’s Office of a local municipality outside of Boston.