The City of Boston on Nov. 1 unveiled a statue of Bill Russell. It’s a beautiful piece showing Russell throwing an outlet chest pass, surrounded by 11 inscribed granite blocks, one for each of his Boston Celtics championships. The words from Russell chiseled into each lock will outlast the significance of the NBA achievements. This statue will say much to future visitors and residents about the city’s social growth. Anything that has anything to do with social history has a connection with criminal justice. So here goes.
“Russ” joins Boston’s eclectic mix of individuals memorialized in stone and metal. The mix includes such figures as Leif Erikson, whose Back Bay monument (in which he looks like a pretty and athletic young woman) sits on a plinth inscribed in Runic letters. Why Leif? It’s not to appease the voters in the heavily Norse precincts. This statue, like the design of the abutments of Longfellow Bridge and a monument you can find near Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, are artifacts of a 19th century fad. A lot of influential people bought the idea that Erikson sailed up the Charles and lodged briefly on the riverbank. Eben Horsford, a Harvard chemist who formulated modern baking powder, was the foremost advocate of that idea.
Robert Burns and not founder John Winthrop stands in the Financial District’s Winthrop Square. Winthrop’s statue once stood in the center of things in Scollay Square (painful irony for the archetypal Puritan) and now is tucked away at First Church on Marlborough St. By odd contrast a magisterial and much more public bronze of John Endecott, founder of Salem and the irritating Bay Colony colleague to Winthrop, can be found on the Fenway near the Museum of Fine Arts. There is no statue to the great John Adams but Alexander Hamilton heads the parade of monuments on the Comm. Ave. Mall, of which the fetching Leif brings up the rear. Abigail Adams gets a nod from the statue on Commonwealth Ave. that also acknowledges the slave and poet Phillis Wheatley and the abolitionist Lucy Stone; that monument plays catch-up to the fact that Boston and New England have a boatload of unrecognized historic women, e.g. Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and so few women are ever memorialized in sculpture, anywhere.
I have an opinion on why the set of individuals honored in bronze and granite historically is such a hodgepodge. The two dominant cultural traditions in Boston history, Puritanism and puritanical Irish Catholicism, eschewed calling undue attention to the individual sinner. The Puritans believed that just about any honored object would be a false God. The Irish tradition clearly embraced religious iconography but not the secular. Irish Catholic social and political tradition is built on symbols and loyalty, not on individual persons. So who gets a statue and who doesn’t was not a central concern.
Lately, Boston has loosened up a great deal in public monument making. In the past 20 years sports legends have emerged in bronze, as part of two trends. One is the erecting of statues of, and the naming of things after, accomplished people still living. Ted Williams got a tunnel in his lifetime and Tip O’Neill, though he had to be pushed by wife Millie and Ted Kennedy, attended the dedication of his own federal building next to the Garden. The second trend is the erecting of statues to sports heroes. The late Will McDonough led the latter trend with raising money for the statue of Red Auerbach in Quincy Market. Since then Bobby Orr, even without Noel Picard to trip him, has become permanently airborne at the Garden; Ted, Yaz and the Teammates stand on Van Ness Street.
Of these markers, Russell’s is, for me, the most meaningful to Boston’s history. It certainly honors a great man of unique achievement. The towering bronze of Russell is more; it is a monument to the city’s racial progress.
It is well-known that Bill Russell loved playing for the Celtics and Auerbach but not for Boston. Boston treated the Hall of Famer worse than shabbily and he was outspoken in his outrage. He lived and played in a city harshly segregated by race. The City’s tradition of discrimination started with the first slaves arriving in 1638 and surged when the first starving Irish Catholic immigrants made their way off the ships, or down the long trails from Canada, in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Intertribal hostility informed access to everything: politics and government, religion, employment and wealth (public and private), housing and sports and entertainment. The color of one’s skin became the primary and fundamental factor, followed by religion and gender. This city Russell left in 1969 with a vow never to return.
The city that honored Bill Russell on Friday is a more open and welcoming community because in the past 35 years a lot of people of goodwill of every background — including Irish, Black and Brahmin – collaborated to make it so. This honorable corps includes police officers such as Mickey Roache and Bill Johnston and the heroes of the BPD Community Disorders Unit.
For a long time into the future the monument to William Felton Russell will serve as a marker of progress, a reminder of a shameful past and an inspiration to keep moving forward.