NBA great Cazzie Russell will huddle with young Black males to end gun violence in Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Too many young Black men are walking around with guns in their pockets, says Millard Southern, pastor of Allen Chapel A.M.E. Church in Kalamazoo.
 
“That’s a mess,” he says.
 
They don’t know their history, says Southern. They aren’t taking advantage of educational opportunities. And they don’t have enough positive role models. As a result, “Children are killing children,” he says. “We’re shooting each other. We don’t think life is precious.”
 
With Father’s Day weekend at hand, he is trying to give them a strong role model, a clear vision, and a simple message of hope, in the form of NBA basketball legend Cazzie Russell.
 
Russell, who starred on four National Basketball Association teams, winning a championship in 1970 with the New York Knicks, is scheduled to keynote a breakfast gathering at 10 a.m. Friday, 17, 2022 in the Arcadia Ballroom of the Radisson Plaza Hotel & Suites in downtown Kalamazoo.
 
His message?
 
Rev. Millard Southern, pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church in Kalamazoo, says young Black males need more strong role models to lead them to better lives.“I want young people to think: I can make a difference in my community. I am an agent of change,” Southern says.
 
Why Russell, a long-retired player who recently celebrated his 78th birthday, and who played way before any of the young men and women in this weekend’s audience were born?
 
“They don’t know their history,” Southern says of young people, particularly young Black males. “You have to know where you came from in order to know where you’re going.”
 
Russell is a bit of that history. He grew up in the Altgeld Gardens housing project on Chicago’s south side before the U.S. Civil Rights movement and before many social and economic opportunities were available to African-Americans. But he prospered and used his 6’5” frame and athletic skills to attend the University of Michigan. He played basketball there and became one of that university’s first big stars in the NBA.
 
“As a community, we don’t value what came before us,” Southern says. Speaking in sports terms and speaking of current NBA stars, he says, “While Lebron James is nice, while Steph Curry is nice, if you look at Michigan basketball, there would not be a Juwan Howard, a Chris Webber, or currently an Isaiah Livers without Cazzie Russell.”
 
Livers is a 2021 graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School who, like Howard and Webber, attended the U-M before being drafted into the NBA. Livers plays for the Detroit Pistons.
 
“A lot of young people are not taking advantage of The Kalamazoo Promise,” Southern says, referring to the 17-year-old free college tuition program for graduates of the Kalamazoo Public Schools. “They’re walking around with guns. They’re shooting up the neighborhood.

Father’s Day weekend, which will include Juneteenth, is a great time to say that needs to stop, Southern says, and “to put the spotlight on what it means to be a father – to be a role model, to be present.”

Juneteenth is the June 19th celebration of  the end of slavery in the United States.

Friday’s gathering hopes to attract young males who have been contacted through any of several outreach efforts to help stop gun violence in Kalamazoo, including Men of Purpose, Group Violence Intervention, The Fatherhood Network, and the Kalamazoo Black Male Alliance.
 
Friday’s continental breakfast gathering is free for those age 17 or younger. The cost  is $25 for adults, with the proceeds to help provide scholarship money for college-bound area students.
 
Along with Allen Chapel, the event is being co-sponsored by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, The Kalamazoo Promise, the Lewis Walker Institute, the Northside Ministerial Alliance and TRHT Kzoo (Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Kalamazoo).
 
Cazzie Russell was one of the first University of Michigan Wolverines to become a big star in the National Basketball Association.Since being named lead pastor in 2020, Southern, 41, has been working to build the congregation of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at 804 W. North St. He says he is doing that by using the resources at hand. Russell is among them. He is Southern’s great-uncle. An ordained minister, Russell is set to speak at Allen Chapel’s 10 am. Service on Sunday, June 19, 2022.
 
Southern says he expects Russell’s message on Friday to be one of hope, one that insists: “You must get a great education. You must straighten up and fly right. You have greatness within you. We have to be men and women of strong faith so that we can walk in our community and change our community and transform our community. It’s a message of hope. It’s a message of empowerment. Young Black males need to be empowered.”

 

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.