Veteran Civic and Church leader Rev. John Russell, Sr. dies

*He was at the forefront of local civil rights movement for decades
**He served as the only Black parish school board member since 1986
***Protested, jailed and resisted unjust laws in local community
****Local acknowledgement of King Holiday is to his credit

The Reverend John L. Russell, Sr., a man who spent his life as a champion of the poor and underserved, died Monday morning after a long illness.

The Reverend Russell died at 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, December 16, 2019, in the Glennwood Hospital after a lengthy illness. He was surrounded by his wife, Rotina, and family.

Pastor Russell was a giant of the local civil rights movement. He stood at the vanguard of the community’s push for equality before the law, justice in the courts, and political independence.

As a pastor, civil rights leader, and elected official the Reverend Russell’s name became a household word in the local community.

In 1965, he served as a federal registrar to ensure that minority voting rights were protected under the new Voting Rights Act passed by Congress.

In the Early 1970’s he reactivated the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His immediate objective was to get black elected officials on the Monroe City Council. It was a fight ultimately ended with a victorious lawsuit filed by Benny J. Ausberry and others that changed Monroe’s government and provided for Black representation on the city council.

He pastored Macedonia and Antioch Baptist Churches. Both churches became bases for local youth protesters that marched and picketed to desegregate local businesses that refused to hire blacks. The Reverend Russell was at the forefront of many of the marches and was arrested in 1970 while attempting to integrate a public event held at the Monroe Civic Center.

In 1972, he was appointed as “Assistant Mayor” of the City of Monroe. From a large suite of offices in city hall, he managed a large budget and was specially charged to respond to the needs of African-Americans in Monroe’s South Side. When Mayor Ralph Troy wanted him to use his new position to muzzle black protests against injustices, Reverend Russell abruptly quit the job. He said he refused to be the white man’s “Super Nigger.”

In 1983, Congress officially recognized the Martin Luther King Holiday, but local governments refused to acknowledge the holiday. The Reverend Russell led local protests to force recognition of the holiday. Most local governments reluctantly recognized the holiday, but the Ouachita Parish School Board stubbornly refused.

In 1986, Russell ran for a seat on the parish school board. Once elected, he promoted improvements for school facilities in predominately black neighborhoods, especially Richwood High School. He consistently challenged the board’s refusal to acknowledge the King holiday and led annual marches of concerned citizens to protest the board’s resistance.

When the board continued its refusal to recognize the holiday, Russell staged a one-man boycott of local white businesses to get them to pressure the board to change its view. In the scorching heat of summer, Russell often stood alone in front of targeted businesses with a picket sign and a sweat towel. At first board members, and even some in the Black community dismissed Russell’s one-man protest as futile. However, the board finally relented, and the parish schools voted to recognize the holiday.

He promoted the King legacy by founding the Martin Luther King Foundation, which stages an annual salute to Dr. King’s legacy of non-violent resistance in pursuit of justice for all. A 2012 stage play depicted Reverend Russell’s fight. His son, John Jr., played his father in the play that was performed at the Monroe Civic Center.

Russell served on the school board from 1986 until his death. His efforts resulted in the construction and expansion of a New Richwood High School, and expansions and improvements to other Southside Schools. Many of these constructions and expansions would not have happened without Russell’s influence.

After his tenure at the Antioch Baptist Church ended, he founded the New Antioch Baptist Church, which later evolved into the Greater New Antioch Baptist Church, pastored by his son, Rev. John Russell, II, who took over after Pastor Russell retired.

The Reverend Russell, as a pastor, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ, saved hundreds of souls, ministered to the needy, and championed the cause of the poor and underserved all of his adult life.

He has been the recipient of many awards, trophies, and honors.

When he thought he was right, he stubbornly resisted injustice. He never backed down, and often stood alone.

He had a big smile, a big heart, and opened his arms to embrace the “least of these” in the Monroe community.

He ranks high among the heroes of our community and will never be forgotten.

He was preceded in death by:  His parents: Mr. Jack and Mrs. Arleaner Evans Russell, Siblings: Rev. L. T. Russell, Ms. Naomi Russell, Mr. Osby Russell, Rev. Otha Evans, Rev. William Russell, Mrs. Everleaner Russell Mitchell, Minister Robert Russell. Mrs. Mariah H. Haynes, Mrs. Dankie H. Horton, Mr. Herman C. Wilson, Mr. Douglas Hicks.

He leaves a legacy to be cherished by his devoted and loving wife of 56 years:  Mrs. Rotena Hicks Russell, Two Devoted Sons: Pastor John L. (Candice) Russell II, Rev. Jack L. (Marico) Russell, One Daughter-Niece:  Mrs. Ea Laverne Holmes, Louisville, Ky., Two Brothers:  Rev. Lennard (Ruby) Russell, Rev. Saint Anthony (Tony) Russell, both of Monroe, La., Four Sisters:  Mrs. Gertrude Strickland, Shreveport, La., Minister Dorothy Harris, Mrs. Velda Williams, Minister Carol A. Russell, all of Las Vegas, Nv., Sister In Laws:  Mrs. Johnnie H. Hicks, Baton Rouge, La., Mrs. Gloria Hill Hicks, Monroe, La., Mrs. Lola Evans, Mrs. Louise Wilson, Seven Grandchildren:  Mrs. Victoria (Eugene) Tates, Lake Charles, La., Mrs. Johnnisha (Joshua) Boatner, Baton, Rouge, La., Ms. Sophea Russell, Monroe, La., Mr. Robert Levingston, Monroe, La., Anterrious Collins, Shreveport, La., Maressea Collins, Jack Russell II, Olivia Russell, all of Monroe, La., Four Great Grandchildren: Jayanna Frazier, Genesis Tates, both of Lake Charles, La., John Mychael Russell, Alani Hampton, both of Monroe, La., Two Godsons: Mr. Lawrence Ray Martin, Jr., Mr. Aaron (Joe Anna) Green of Jacksonville, Nc., a host of nieces, nephews, cousins, and other relatives, especially the GREATER NEW ANTIOCH BAPTIST CHURCH  FAMILY.

Thursday, December 26, 2019. Rev. Dr. John L. Russell to lie in state from 12:00 noon – 6:00 P.M. Civil Rights, Social Justice & Celebration at 6:00 P.M. Greater New Antioch Baptist Church, 301 Sherrouse Avenue, Monroe, La. 71203. Final visitation will be Friday, December 27, 2019. The Official Celebration of Life will be at 11:00 A.M. at Greater New Antioch Baptist Church, 301 Sherrouse Avenue Monroe, La. 71203.

In Lieu of Flowers please make donations payable to the Dr. John L. Russell Sr. Scholarship Fund or the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Foundation of Ouachita Parish.