In 1909 Russell was among 60 inspirational men and women such as Oswald Villard, William Walling, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois, Jane Addams, and Lillian Wald who worked together to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), formed in the aftermath of a race riot at Springfield, Illinois in August of the previous year. Russell's participation in the founding of the NAACP stemmed from his experiences with violence and racism as a child. One of the most memorable experiences included his father nearly being hanged for simply opposing slavery. Russell served and participated on the board of directors for the NAACP for the remainder of his life.
Of the sixty founders, only seven were black.