"There used to be a lot of emphasis on the first Negro to do this, the first Negro to do that. It's unimportant who's the first or who's the last. The important thing is—how many? The rest is tokenism. When Thurgood Marshall was made a judge it made me feel real good, because he never attempted to disassociate himself, like some educated Negroes. Some Negroes live in a twilight zone, closing themselves off into a small, white society. The Negro world doesn't concern them. I feel sorry for them—to an extent. Education is the acquiring of the ability to think for oneself; anyone can get through college on memory courses. If a Negro judge says, 'I don't think of myself as a Negro, just as a competent judge,' he's not facing life the way it is in our society. It's harder to face it the other way, but you can sleep at night—every night."
Although everyone in his family is a life member of the N.A.A.C.P., Russell has not played a major role in any single Negro organization; he does not look upon himself as a leader, and is uncomfortable in crowds. He views the Negro movement as being various in means but single in aim, and feels that its factionalism is not divisive but a search for the most effective way.
"I would have loved to go to Birmingham," Russell says, "but I'm not passive. Sometimes I think I have tendencies to violence. I've been mad enough to fight three times in my life, and each time I wanted to kill the man. You know the athletes I admire? Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson and Sonny Liston. It's easy to be easygoing and friendly to everyone. I think a man has to be what he is. If he feels good, he is good; if he doesn't, he isn't. I'm an admirer of Floyd Patterson, too. These are honest people in the sense of representing themselves. Some Negro athletes don't show me much. I'm disappointed in them. They are politicians in the sense of saying the right things all the time.
"If I went down there to Birmingham and let someone spit on me and didn't do anything about it, it wouldn't be me. If you never really express dissatisfaction concretely, people tend to ignore it. If you believe in something you've got to say it. This passive kick—if it doesn't work, how can they keep preaching it? It is predicated on the premise that people are basically moral. If they are right, this is wonderful. If they are wrong, the religious phase of the movement will be destroyed. If Martin Luther King is wrong he has failed as a leader. Maybe I'm becoming a fatalist or whatever you call it. Morality is a very large word. Morality and love have a lot in common. Who can really define it? What is moral and what is immoral? It is relative.
"I've been reading about the Black Muslims. A lot of things they say express the way I feel perfectly, or, rather, a great deal of the things they say I cannot disagree with. Can the races get along? Yes. Will they get along? That's the question. The Muslims say the white man's a devil. I don't agree with that, because I don't think there is such a thing as a devil. They say the white man is evil. I wonder about that in the sense that I wonder whether all men are evil. I dislike most white people because they are people. As opposed to dislike, I like most black people because I am black. I consider this a deficiency in myself—maybe. If I looked at it objectively, detached myself, it would be a deficiency."
In 1959 Russell first went to Black Africa on a tour for the State Department. The continent had such an impact upon him that he bought part ownership of a rubber farm in Liberia and named his baby daughter Karen Kenyatta after Jomo Kenyatta, the prime minister-designate of Kenya and onetime Mau Mau leader, whom Russell greatly admires. Russell is thinking quite seriously of settling in Liberia. "I found a place I was welcome because I was black instead of in spite of being black," he says.
"The basic problem in Negro America is the destruction of race pride. One could say we have been victims of psychological warfare, in a sense, in that this is a white country and all the emphasis is on being white. Whiter than white. According to the law, immigrants from northern European countries are more desirable than any others. When a white man says his folks come from Ireland, he says it with a certain amount of pride. He probably can trace his family tree for generations, for whatever it's worth. This is not true of the American Negro. Until the emergence of the independent African countries all we knew about Africa was from the Tarzan and Jungle Jim movies. How stupid they made the natives! One white man—Tarzan—was the best and smartest at everything. Even King Kong, after accepting the sacrifice of blacks for years, when he was offered a white girl he didn't kill her. He fell in love with her! Pride in being black was practically destroyed by seeing stupid things like this; there was almost a sense of self-degradation. Also, until very recently, the so-called Negro elite was fair-skinned.
"The problem I see in Africa is that it has to build a middle class. All your great political and social changes have been brought about by the middle class—merchants, artisans, technicians. Africa's needs are not necessarily administrators but people who can do—plumbers, tool-and-die-makers, draftsmen. Black Africa is stepping from carrying things on the head to carrying them in airplanes. They've skipped the wheelbarrow, the horse and buggy and, practically, railroads. They have problems so immense, where do you start? You educate as many as you can. But everyone who gets an education wants to be an administrator. People have to realize there are stations in life, forms of success. Everyone wants to have the ultimate success. Everyone can't have it. Someone must roll their sleeves up and go to work. I find it a very perplexing problem, whether I should go to Africa or stay here. I've thought about it a great deal. If my contribution would be more concrete here, no doubt I should stay here.
"When I look at the struggle of the American Negro I can't help but be very, very proud. With what we've had to work with we've done a pretty good job of surviving. But we still have so far to go.... It would be a hell of a country.... It's a great country as it is. Now we have to define great; an ambiguous word. Great industrial empire, standard of living.... I think it would be so much greater if everyone had an equal opportunity in every field. There is no way to speculate how much brainpower this country has lost. And we don't have to like each other to live together peacefully and equally. Have you ever read how in the time of drought all the animals use the same water hole? The lions stay with the lions, the tigers with the tigers, the elephants live with elephants, but they all use the same water hole."
Of course, because of his wealth and position, Russell's experiences do not parallel those of most black men most of the time. He lives on a white block in a white town, has white baby-sitters and drives a 1964 Lincoln Continental convertible. The fact that owning a big car is considered a Negro stereotype does not concern Russell. "I've passed the stage," he says, "where I have to prove anything. I happen to like watermelon, too. There may come a time when I have to ride a bicycle. It won't bother me. It just won't be as fast or convenient." In Boston, Russell's celebrity is so great he can no longer enjoy himself at the ballpark or at nightclubs; he gets too much attention. Once in a while, however, the ineradicable fact of being black, which he has never forgotten intellectually, falls upon him and wounds him like a blow.